CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs are seemingly stuck in mud, hovering a few games over .500 (25-21) as we head toward Memorial Day. That usually equates to "wild-card contender" status, but Chicago's talent and payroll scream more. The two-time defending division champions have underachieved so far; that much everyone can agree upon.
What has gone wrong?
The problems with the starting staff are obvious. Going into the weekend, Yu Darvish has a 4.95 ERA, Jose Quintana has a 4.47 mark, and Tyler Chatwood has the shakiest 3.74 ERA you'll ever see. He has walked 40 in 45⅔ innings. They all average about five innings per start, helping to prevent the team from going on a run.
But what of the offense?
The Cubs have scored 10 or more runs in more games than any other team in baseball, having done so nine times in their first 46 contests. That's pretty good.
"Overall, I kind of like what I'm seeing on the offensive side," manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday. "I think a lot of guys are actually doing well right now."
Maddon said that before his team got shut out by the Cleveland Indians later that night. And therein lies the rub. Scoring 10 is great, but what about the other 37 games? After two straight days of being shut down by Indians pitching, the Cubs have scored three or fewer runs in 23 of those 37 other games. No wonder Manny Machado's name can be heard on local sports talk radio about every five seconds.
But wait a minute. The Cubs rank second in the National League in runs scored and average the most per game at 5.17. Why would they need another hitter? The answer is, they don't -- at least, not right now.
"Are we doing a better job of not chasing?" Maddon asked rhetorically. "I think so. Are we utilizing the oppo [opposite-field] gap better? I think so .... I don't think anyone is overtly striking out too much right now, so I kind of like what we're doing with the bats. I do."
So the manager likes what he's seeing, most of the time at least. But let's discuss those 23 games in which the Cubs scored three or fewer. It seems like a lot. It's the reason for consternation among Cubs fans, but it's not nearly as bad as other teams in the NL -- other contending teams.
For example, the Arizona Diamondbacks have scored three or fewer 28 times, while the Washington Nationals have done so 26 times. Those Colorado Rockies, who play at Coors Field? They've scored fewer than four runs 25 times this season. The Cubs' opponent this weekend, the San Francisco Giants, have achieved that mark one more time than the Cubs. In fact, the Cubs rank in the lower half of the NL in scoring three or fewer runs in a game this season.
Yes, they've lost some close games partly because that can't "move the baseball," as Maddon likes to put it, particularly in key situations. They are successful in getting a runner home from third base with fewer than two out just 44 percent of the time, tied for third-worst in all of baseball. That part of their game is a work in progress and might indeed force the front office to add a hitter to fortify Chicago's offense over the summer.
"I'm going to talk about that for the next 10 years, and I'm not going to like it, probably," Maddon said of situational hitting.
The best thing going for the Cubs is that the trade deadline isn't Memorial Day. It's July 31. If the Cubs' starting staff continues its inconsistent ways, that could be the priority at the deadline, or perhaps Machado will indeed be the final piece. For now, the Cubs aren't as bad as you might think on offense -- though they could be better.