Remember when the Cubs held an 11.5-game lead over the Cardinals and a 14-game lead over the Pirates on June 20th? The media was handing the Cubs the division crown, fans were writing off the Central, rumors began to swirl that the Pirates would consider trading former-MVP Andrew McCutchen and even the Cardinals seemed to be an afterthought. It was time for the Cubs to put it in cruise control.
Less than a month later, the landscape of the NL Central is completely different. The narrative is completely different. The Cardinals trail the Cubs by seven games, with the Pirates right on their tails, trailing St. Louis by a half of a game.
The Cubs are skidding, the Pirates and Cardinals are surging. What a difference a month can make.
The Cubs went 5-16 in their last 21 games before the All-Star break and that includes their three-game sweep of the lowly Reds. As bad as things have been, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Cubs can get back to their winning ways.
Here’s a complete, honest look at the Cubs: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Bats: The Cubs still have one of baseball’s most formidable lineups. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are both legitimate MVP candidates and might be the best power hitting duo in all of baseball. There’s not a pair of teammates in the NL that has a higher combined OPS (on-base plus slugging) than these two, or as many combined homers.
Depth: Their positional depth and defensive versatility is advantageous to them as the grueling season rolls along. With guys like Kris Bryant and Ben Zobrist who are capable of playing all over the field, and a deep bench full of youngsters like Javier Baez and Albert Almora, the Cubs won’t have to worry about running out of gas.
The Pitching Staff: Despite recent struggles, a case can still be made that the Cubs have baseball’s deepest starting rotation. Arrieta-Lester-Lackey steal headlines as one of baseball’s best one-two-three punches, but Jason Hammel (7-5, 3.46 ERA) and Kyle Hendricks (2.55 ERA, 1.034 WHIP) provide the Cubs with serious stability at the back-end of their rotation. Both righties struggled with consistency in the latter months of the season in 2015, but if these two can continue to pitch the way they have in 2016, they could be key pieces in the Cubs run for a World Series title.
The Skipper: Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in the bigs. His creative style will keep his players engaged and excited to play for the entire season.
The Schedule: The Cubs, 26-14 at home, will play 24 of their first 32 games at Wrigley Field.
The Ace: It’s hard to put Jake Arrieta under this section-header, but, the truth is that he hasn’t been himself lately. Time will tell if he’ll be able to turn things around, but right now, he’s bad. He’s only gone more than six innings once since the beginning of June, and he’s lost three of his last four starts. His biggest struggle has been with his command and control— he’s had troubles keeping his pitch-count down all season long.
Injuries: Dexter Fowler has been called the team’s spark-plug, table-setter, Energizer bunny—and a whole lot more—as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter. The Cubs’ center-fielder won’t begin his rehab assignment until next week, and many are concerned about his hamstrings injury, considering such injuries have a tendency to linger. There’s no doubt that his production at the plate .290/.398/.483 has been missed. Injuries to the bullpen continue to plague the team, and Jorge Soler has been missed in the lineup as well.
The bullpen needed its own category. Much has been written about the struggles in the pen, so much that there’s nothing left to be penned. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer should be bringing in help, hopefully in the form of a lefty reliever and at least one other strong-armed relief pitcher, before the trade deadline at the end of the month.
A series to watch
Everyone is going crazy about the Cubs’ weekend series with the Rangers, projecting it as a possible World Series preview, but it’s way too early for that kind of talk. Another series to mark on your calendar is the Cubs’ four-gamer with the Cardinals from Aug. 11 to the 14th. That series will provide St. Louis an opportunity to gain serious ground in the division.
It was silly for any of us, myself included, to think that the Cubs were going to be able to keep up the pace that they did for the first two and a half months of the season. However, it’s also silly to think that this team will continue to skid the way that they have these last three weeks.
Bottom line: This team is going to be just fine. However, don’t write off the Cardinals or Pirates. Both teams are dangerous and will likely stay in contention until September. That being said, I think that the Cubs can win this division by five or six games when it’s all said and done.
If the front office can bandage up the bullpen and the whole team can get healthy, I’ll be very confident in this Cubs’ team. I still think they have the deepest roster in the bigs, the best lineup in baseball and one of the best skippers in the league. They’ll be just fine.
Is this the year? I have no idea—and I’m done speculating about that for now. None of that matters. Right now, it’s just time for the Cubs to get back on the right track.
Kevin McCarthy, a junior at the University of Illinois, is serving an internship at Scout.com this summer and covering the Cubs for NorthSidersReport. You can follow him at @KevOMcCarthy on Twitter or contact him by e-mail at Kevin.McCarthy00@yahoo.com