CHICAGO -- This is one of those times Chicago Cubs fans have to play some minds tricks on themselves as the team returns -- make that limps -- home from a disastrous long weekend in New York.
We’ve hit the halfway point of the season, so go back to the beginning and ask yourself if you would take a 51-30 record through 81 games. Would you take an eight-game lead in the division? Of course you would, but mind tricks won’t make anyone forget what they just saw in the sweep by the Mets or even the losing series against the Miami Marlins earlier on the road trip.
The Cubs are in the middle of a perfect storm, and perhaps only the coming All-Star break will guide them out of it. Injuries, a rough schedule, a bullpen mess and a starting staff that looks human have all contributed to their slide. There is no one thing you can point to, as it’s the sum of the above problems which have caught up with them. Halfway through the season, let’s examine the real problems and temporary ones.
Real problem: Bullpen
Like most Cubs statistics, the overall numbers are good, though it's important to remember that the bullpen has thrown the fewest innings of any in baseball. But even a casual observer can see that manager Joe Maddon only has faith in a few guys, because only a few guys are worthy of it.
Justin Grimm is the biggest mystery. His numbers have decidedly trended the wrong way over the course of the first three months, and it has turned the middle of the pen upside down. One result is Hector Rondon being asked to deliver multiple-inning saves, which could catch up with him, and there is still no reliable lefty specialist, though Travis Wood has practically kept the entire group afloat by himself. Wood's arm might fall off as he’s on pace for a whopping 80 appearances. Carl Edwards Jr. might be emerging as a go-to guy, but the Cubs can’t assume anything right now. The only answer is to go outside the organization. There is no bigger or more important task for the Cubs' front office than finding bullpen help between now and the July 31 trade deadline. Even if Grimm returns to form and Edwards is that good, they still need a lefty.
Temporary problem: Rotation
There is a caveat to this one: The starting rotation is a temporary problem because it has to be one. If Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester (and Jason Hammel, for that matter) pitch like they just did in New York, then forget it -- the championship drought will continue. There is no fix from the outside coming here. They have five quality starters who simply need to throw better, and if one of the back-end guys -- think Hammel -- can’t get it done, then maybe the team finds a new answer in that spot. But for all intents and purposes, this is the starting staff for now and October -- if the Cubs get that far. What are they going to do? Send a ton of assets to Oakland for Sonny Gray, who has 5.42 ERA? And plug him in where, exactly?
There are no great rentals on the market, and previous sellers -- think Cleveland -- are no longer in selling mode. We know San Diego still is, but do you really want a Padre? Back-end help, maybe, is about all the Cubs will and possibly should improve on, but only as depth in case of injury. Cross your fingers Cubs fans, because if Arrieta doesn’t return to being Cy Young Arrieta, or at least a semblance of him, there are big troubles coming.
Potential problem: Offense
Hedging my bet on this one, as this is the one area which can’t be judged too harshly by recent play. There is a reason Dexter Fowler was considered the glue for the Cubs -- both on offense and in the clubhouse. He’s been missing in action, as have several players, which has eroded any margin for error at the plate.
Maddon mentioned the contact rate in New York as a growing concern. The last thing he wants to see come October is a repeat of last season, when cold weather combined with swing-and-miss players led to a quick exit from the NLCS. In April, the Cubs struck out 14th most in the National League. In May, they jumped up to fourth. In June it was second, and in three games in July they have already struck out 32 times -- second-most again. Weren't Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist supposed to rub off on the rest of the team -- not the other way around? Zobrist has been fine, but Heyward’s strikeout percentage is his highest since his early days in Atlanta. It’s one reason he’s only driven in 50 percent of runners from third with less than two outs -- also worse than usual for him. Zobrist has more walks than strikeouts, so he’s doing his job.
The biggest issue on offense still might be their youth. It gets exposed in big moments. Addison Russell has plenty of upside but has struck out 77 times in 76 games played. Willson Contreras has been great, but a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 3-to-1 will hurt at times. Albert Almora Jr. has been fantastic at the plate, but his 4-to-1 ratio is also too high. Even Kris Bryant is still learning his craft as evidenced by his ninth-inning at-bat on Thursday night with the tying run 90 feet away in New York. Strikeouts are the Cubs' kryptonite and they have been on the rise. If the return of Fowler fixes everything on offense, his next contract should be signed soon after he takes the field again, but there is more than an injury to one player going on here. The Cubs need to find their April mojo at the plate.
Where they go from here: First things first. The Cubs need to get to the All-Star break in one piece and with at least their current eight-game lead in the division. Just maintaining what they have should be a goal, nothing more. All seven games this week come against teams .500 or below. Who cares who they beat, as long as they beat someone right now? After the break, help in the form of healthy bodies and some new additions in the bullpen should be in order. Fowler, Tommy La Stella and even Jorge Soler can be difference-makers in their own ways. You can’t expect the Cubs to lose so many different parts -- remember they lost a ton of depth when Kyle Schwarber went down -- and maintain the same level of play. There should be no panic here, just concern. It’s not a matter of if the Cubs will play good baseball again, but when. The sooner the better, or the division will really be up for grabs over the final 81 games.