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Slow progress for Chicago Cubs but progress nonetheless

Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant have keyed this offense, but the rest of the Cubs' lineup has been inconsistent. Norm Hall/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- It's a little bit of a gut-check time for the Chicago Cubs as they're squeezed between a St. Louis Cardinals team that keeps winning, despite an injury-plagued season, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are making a charge from third place.

Meanwhile, the second-place Cubs will begin their toughest test to date as they'll take on the first-place Kansas City Royals this weekend before beginning a nine-game road trip.

The off day on Thursday must have done them some good; early in the week manager Joe Maddon lamented the fact his team was starting games at five different times during the homestand, including Friday's 4:05 p.m. ET first pitch. If a team is going to look tired, it usually shows up at the plate or perhaps with some sloppy defense. The Cubs scored a total of four runs in their series against the Washington Nationals this week while making four errors in three games. But they also flashed some leather, especially in their lone win on Tuesday, so even in some tough times the Cubs have found their way to a win or two, and it's kept their collective heads above water.

As for their offense, it's dried up as of late -- but it's hard to be overly critical. It bears reminding that this is hardly a fully formed, well-oiled machine at the plate. There are going to be growing pains. Right now, Maddon can really rely only on Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and even Bryant has his ups and downs. Dexter Fowler has been streaky while Starlin Castro has been in a monthlong slump -- though catcher Miguel Montero has mostly given the team good at-bats. Social media has documented the struggles at the plate when Jon Lester starts as he (0-for-59) and his catcher David Ross (.162) don't exactly strike fear in the opposition.

The other rookies, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell, are behaving exactly as talented rookies do: They have times of greatness at the plate and then look lost. Soler, in particular, is simply letting the big moments get to him. There's the good Soler, who's hitting .277 overall with a .337 on-base percentage, and then there's the Soler with runners in scoring position. His average plummets to .200 in those situations. With two outs it's even worse: He's hitting .105.

"Baseball intelligence goes a long way," Theo Epstein said recently. "If you combine intelligence with self-confidence, even in the face of bad results, that's a great combination. A lot of our core players have those attributes."

That describes Russell. He's been a sponge since making it to the big leagues at just 21 years old. Sometimes he'll look bad with a wild strikeout or two, but then he'll come through as he did on Tuesday, winning the game with a two-out hit in the ninth. Russell continues to look like a star in the making.

With Maddon fidgeting with different lineups and three rookies still finding their way, it's hard to do anything but sit back and watch the progress. Experience simply comes with time.

"It's establishing the right atmosphere where players can relax, be themselves, understand it's OK to take risks, it's OK to fail," Epstein said. "Reinforce their self-confidence -- how good they are, how hard the game is and keep moving forward. A big part of that is relaxing.

"You saw that with Addison. That first week he looked like he was trying not to make waves. Playing a little tight. He was a little robotic in the field. Then comes a point where every player takes a deep breath and relaxes and lets their natural ability come out."

The bullpen

Now here's an area you can complain about. A simple question: Do you trust the Cubs' bullpen? It's hard to find one pitcher down there that is just lights-out every time his name is called. The Kansas City Royals' bullpen has picked up where it left off last year, with a 1.84 ERA going into Friday's game. The Cubs were supposed to have a mini version of that on their back end. It hasn't worked out. The Cubs have a bullpen ERA of 4.07. And remember, the Royals have to face a designated hitter on most nights while the Cubs have yet to play an interleague game on the road. Anyway, even Justin Grimm got touched for a key home run in the Nationals series. He's been the best option since coming back from injury.

Those middle innings are simply going to be a work in progress, but what about the ninth? It was always doubtful Hector Rondon could repeat the year he had in 2014, when he saved 29 of 33 games and gave up just two home runs in 64 appearances. The Cubs can survive if the numbers aren't exactly the same, but when should they be concerned about his job? He's already given up two home runs in 21 games while blowing three save opportunities.

"Some of the answers will come from within," Epstein said. "Some of the answers will come from outside the organization, converting some of the prospects we have to mature, more advanced solutions."

Epstein didn't indicate whether he meant offense or defense with that statement, but it's obvious the Cubs need pitching. General manager Jed Hoyer was more specific.

"The biggest thing I think about, sort of day and night, is pitching depth," he said.

He may not be the only one being kept up late watching the Cubs' bullpen. It's been a roller-coaster ride so far.

Defense

Similar to the offense, the Cubs' defense gets a little bit of a pass due to age. But as young as they are in the infield, Rizzo and Castro are still veterans. Rizzo has been fine but Castro has been shaky to say the least, especially after a good start to the season.

As for Bryant and Russell, they're at the top of the leaderboard for errors at their respective positions, and remember neither started the season on the big league club. Again, Russell gets a major pass; you can see some of his struggles in learning a new position. But then he also has those special moments, like when he dived in the outfield behind second base and threw out Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals. Here's the simple truth: You don't worry about Russell on defense.

Bryant is a different story because he's older and playing his natural position. There have been good moments, but seven errors in 37 games isn't going to cut it. The Cubs' current left side of the infield has made 18 miscues between them just 46 games into the season. The Cubs have the second-most errors in the NL despite playing the second-fewest games. Incredibly, it's cost them only three extra runs, but the real damage has been to the pitcher. The extra pitches have made a big difference, just as they did on Wednesday, when Lester was stuck in an elongated inning after Russell threw a ball away.

That said, the Cubs are doing just fine at 25-21. They'll undoubtedly come out of their mini-slump at the plate and get on a better run. But will it be enough? Can they hang with the Pirates and Cardinals throughout the summer when both those teams are firing on full cylinders?

"The adjustment periods for our young guys have gone really well," Epstein stated. "It's great to be around. They're handling themselves on and off the field in a manner well beyond their years."

Despite the quick adjustments, time is still what the Cubs need. They should be given some.