CLEVELAND — If you had told me during Spring Training, on Opening Day, or even after the Chicago Cubs’ brutal first 10 games of the season that they would be in first place in the NL Central by the All-Star break, I think every Cubs’ fan would’ve been content with the news.
Alas, after an absolutely wild roller coaster of a first half, the Cubs are indeed in first place in the NL Central. But the vibes surrounding this team aren’t that of a first place team. They’re a shell of their former World Series champion selves and have been trending in the wrong direction over the last two months.
Here’s a crazy stat for you: The Cubs are actually below .500 over their last 50 games (22-28). Twenty-two and Twenty-eight! That’s about one third of the season — not a small sample size — and the Cubs have lost more games than they have won during that stretch. Remarkable.
And yet, they are still in first place. Even more remarkable.
Said Kris Bryant after the first half ended with a 3-1 loss to the White Sox:
I’m going to venture out and say that’s probably correct.
There are plenty of theories and even more questions about the Cubs as we head into the All-Star game tonight and resume the season this weekend.
With that, let’s reach into this week’s Cubs Mailbag: All-Star break edition!
Q: This team just can’t seem to get all three phases working together at a time. What’s wrong with them? — Jackie U.
I love the football reference, and you’re correct: The Cubs’ hitting, pitching, and fielding haven’t been consistently strong at the same time for much of this season. The Cubs were on a roll for a bit after their disastrous opening road trip, but their extended rut seems to coincide with when they recalled Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist left the team.
First of all, Russell never should’ve been recalled. A big part of this team’s aura the last few years has been their chemistry, good vibes and likeability. Russell’s return killed that. Bad human being realities aside, he’s also not hitting or playing good enough defense to warrant a roster spot, let alone a lineup spot. It’s also disconcerting that the Cubs are so heavily reliant on Zobrist. He’s a truly professional hitter and has been a boon for this team, but for their offensive production to shut down since his departure is concerning.
The bullpen, despite signing Craig Kimbrel, has weak links. Kimbrel himself is still getting up to speed and grasping his command. Mike Montgomery shouldn’t be in a specialist role. The Cubs don’t have a real lefty specialist (Kyle Ryan barely counts) and Joe Maddon doesn’t seem to trust reverse splits. And Brad Brach hasn’t been good enough.
A signature of this team from 2015 through the first half of last year was exceptional fielding and overall smart baseball. Alas, the Cubs rank near the bottom in fielding percentage this year and lead the league in outs made on the basepaths (not including pickoffs / caught stealing). That is indicative of dumb baseball. When you’re not hitting enough, mental errors can’t happen and you can’t give a team free outs. But the Cubs are doing exactly those things. And that’s why this team is stuck in a prolonged rut.
Until these things get cleaned up, the Cubs will continue to struggle. Their issues with RISP are well documented, but their rates of driving runners in are rather consistent with past years. The biggest issues are with the bullpen, base-running and fielding. Get those on track, and the Cubs will immediately play better baseball more consistently.
I know it seems almost impossible, but we need to also consider the possibility that the Cubs will be sellers at the deadline. If the Cubs go on a demoralizing skid to open the second half and, coupled with a hot streak by their NL Central opponents, if the Cubs find themselves a healthy set of games out of first with many teams ahead of them, I wouldn’t be surprised. The Cubs are stuck in the middle-ish among non-division leaders in the Wild Card race as well. So it remains an unlikely possibility.
That said, this team needs left handed relief help and offensive depth. As I mentioned above, Mike Montgomery isn’t a lefty specialist, Kyle Ryan is average at best and Joe Maddon doesn’t play on reverse splits much (e.g. areas where someone like Dillon Maples would be effective). So I wouldn’t be surprised if they took a look at relievers like Tony Watson or Will Smith. Both of them would be extremely expensive in a trade, but if the Cubs are all in, I wouldn’t be surprised. But help here is needed.
And of course, offensive depth. Robel Garcia has provided a great spark in his limited time with the team so far, and hopefully he will stick around. The Cubs have gotten nothing from Addison Russell or Daniel Descalso and they just don’t have a strong enough bottom of the order. Depth here is prudent. Perhaps they may target someone like Whit Merrifield or Nick Castellanos to get some offensive depth. And getting Ben Zobrist back, if he does come back, will be helpful.
The reality is the Cubs’ roster should, and likely will, look different by the time August 1 rolls around. And the fact that there is no waiver period trade deadline means all the deals must happen by July 31. It’ll be an interesting, and hopefully exciting, three weeks.
Q: What are the chances that the Cubs fire Joe Maddon in-season? — Natalie V.
About as close to zero as one can get without actually hitting zero. Something about never saying never…