If the Chicago Cubs make the playoffs, we should look back at the long forgotten month of April and understand how critical it was. I still don’t know how the Cubs finished four games over .500. It doesn’t sound like much, but it meant everything to this season.
Consider: Starters Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks were bad. Rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell joined the team mid-month, seeing big league pitching for the first time. And manager Joe Maddon admittedly needed more time to figure out what he had -- especially in his bullpen. The Cubs should have been four games under .500.
Fast forward to the start of the second half: With 75 games remaining, and a 47-40 record, Baseball Prospectus projects them with a 69 percent chance of making the postseason. That’s good, but no lock.
Four other National League teams are ahead of the Cubs, but the team right behind them, the New York Mets, has just a 39 percent chance of making it.
Bottom line: It’s there for the taking. And Maddon has done a masterful job.
It’s safe to say the Cubs need about 40 more wins to make the postseason. Maybe less given the way the National League has played out this year. A division title might be out of reach considering the Pittsburgh Pirates have joined the St. Louis Cardinals as the elite teams in the Central, but luckily there are two wild-card spots, and the Cubs currently own one of them.
So what will it take to keep playing in October? What could prevent it? Let’s take a look at the second half.
The reason you keep hearing the Cubs need starting pitching depth is because only one of their top four hurlers has ever thrown 200 innings in a season. For all practical purposes the other three are on pace to reach that plateau. That’s a good thing, but will there be any breakdown in health or effectiveness as the stretch run approaches? That’s the way management has to be thinking heading toward July 31, the non-waiver trade deadline, as well as August 31, the deadline for deals when any acquisitions are postseason-eligible.
The good news is a healthy bullpen gives the Cubs options if their starters falter some. If newcomer Rafael Soriano provides another reliable arm then that’s a bonus. Even without him, it’s a solid relief staff, but starting pitching is still the name of the game. If the Cubs simply maintain what they're doing now in the rotation, they have a very good chance of making the postseason. But they do need some more depth.
How can a team that’s 11th in runs scored, out of 15 NL teams, with just a .319 on-base percentage be seven games over .500 with a spot in the postseason if the season ended today? We have to adjust to the new normal in baseball. Offense isn’t what it used to be.
Maddon is completely aware of this, but recently said .330 would be a "nice" on-base percentage for his team. What he wasn't aware of when he said that is that figure would be the best in the National League. The Los Angeles Dodgers lead the league with a .329 mark. Five years ago that figure was 10 points higher. Ten years ago it was 20 points higher. Times have changed on offense.
"I know we’ve been struggling, but a lot of teams have been struggling," Maddon said.
The difference is the Cubs have plenty of upside because they have three rookies who have shown -- at different times -- an understanding of the strike zone. They have all had their struggles, but you see the talent.
"We have a lot of swing-and-miss on this team, but that’s going to go away gradually as they get more experience," Maddon said. "You’ll see that (on-base) number climb. I really believe that."
On-base percentage and runs scored usually have a correlation. Even if Jorge Soler, Bryant and Russell don’t necessarily take off in the second half, can we expect any better production out of Starlin Castro and more importantly, Dexter Fowler?
"I believe it’s there," Maddon said of Fowler. "I believe you’re going to see it by the end of the season."
If Fowler can produce a .330-.350 on-base percentage in the second half, it would still be lower than his career numbers but could be a boon for the Cubs considering he’s basically hovered around .300 for the past few months. The Cubs are 24-10 when Fowler reaches base two or more times, according to ESPN Stats and Information. That's how important he is.
Castro is a different story. Frankly, who knows what we'll see at the plate, but a few more line drives would be nice. He’s got that ground ball thing to the shortstop down pretty well.
If the Cubs were one of those team hovering just below .500 needing to climb over a bunch of teams to get to the playoffs, then it would be all about them. How can they improve as a team? You could pick your head up late in the year and see where they stand.
But since they are the ones being chased for the final wild-card spot, it’s OK to look at what’s behind them. Anyone who watched the Cubs play the Mets this season should be biased against the Mets. Other than a few well-pitched games, they looked awful. It’s hard to see the Cubs losing out to them.
It’s the World Champs the Cubs will need to be most concerned with. The San Francisco Giants are two games behind the Cubs after winning their final three games of the first half. They have endured two losing streaks longer than any the Cubs have gone through, yet they’re still right there. The Cubs have seven games upcoming with the Giants in the second half, four at Wrigley Field. They should have playoff intensity written all over them.
There are more reasons for the Cubs to make the playoffs than not to. Most of the scenarios where they don’t make it revolve around injuries to their pitching staff -- or simply their youth. If the offense improves just a few percentage points in on-base percentage it could take a lot of pressure off the staff in general. The Cubs don’t need to score two more runs per game. Just a few here or there will do.
"I like the idea we’re keeping our head above water despite not scoring a lot of runs," Maddon said.
That is the best description the manager could make. The Cubs have held their collective heads above water without a fully formed contending team. It’s coming together, but can it manifest itself soon enough for the them to play that one extra game after the regular season? A win there would mean even more.
"You have some guys here learning on the fly in some difficult situations," Maddon said. "It’s not easy. Really hard to do."
They have done it so far. And they have 75 more games to prove they belong where they are now: in the playoffs.