For the Chicago Cubs, the process for them to get back into playoff contention as they have so far in 2019 has been a tough one, especially with how their 2018 season ended. Not only did they lose their grasp on the National League Central divisional lead to the Milwaukee Brewers, and not only did they lose the infamous game 163 in Wrigley Field to the same Brewers team, but they also managed to drop an extra-innings affair in the Wild Card game, also at home, to the Colorado Rockies.
It is safe to say that in order to put 2018 as far in the rear-view mirror as possible, that this year’s Cubs team needed to put together a much-improved season, and that they have so far. Currently sitting in the second Wild Card spot and only 2.5 games behind the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, they look to be doing their best to move on from last season’s awful September collapse.
While not dominant enough to lead the division this late in the season, they are in a prime position to jump in and take it from the Cardinals if they drop a few games. Not only do the Cubs have a small deficit to climb over the final month of the regular season, but they also still face the Cardinals seven more times this year, including the final three days of the regular season.
For a deep playoff run, a lot of aspects have to go the Cubs’ way, which may finally happen due to their consistent bout of misfortunes that they experienced all throughout 2018. Here are three x-factors that the team should focus on if they want to go deep into the playoffs this season.
Keeping Ben Zobrist in the starting lineup – everyday
Having just returned from spending the vast majority of the season away from the team due to dealing with an impending divorce, utilityman Ben Zobrist is back with the team, picking up where he left off, both offensively and defensively. The former Tampa Bay Ray is a vital piece to manager Joe Madden’s flexibility on defense, so having him back in the starting lineup is the exact jolt of energy that this team needs to be injected into their lineups.
For Zobrist, the key to getting the most out of him is giving him a ton of playing time. Almost acting as a late-season trade deadline acquisition, Zobrist is a lot healthier and has much more energy than players that have played the full season, which is not something that most teams can get in the month of Sept.
Being put anywhere on the diamond so to get him consistent at-bats, Zobrist is a major cog in what keeps the Cubs going, and he will need to reprise that role if they intend to make the playoffs yet again this season.
Get Craig Kimbrel, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras healthy
Cubs’ closer Craig Kimbrel was just placed on the injury list with elbow inflammation, a big-time injury for any pitcher. But for Kimbrel, who did not sign with the Cubs until June when the draft-pick compensation stipulations wore out, this is a very concerning update in what has been a very up and down season for the former Boston Red Sox closer.
Signed to a large deal to help solidify what has been the team’s weakest link, Kimbrel now provides the team with no support down the stretch, as elbow inflammation injuries normally lead to a more finite medical diagnosis, which could result in needing surgery or being shut down for the remainder of the season.
As for Javier Baez and Willson Contreras, the injury bug seems to have struck both just as the team cannot withstand many more injuries. For Baez, he recently underwent an MRI on his bothersome left wrist, and Contreras has been dealing with a recurring hamstring injury that has put him on the shelf for some time for different spurts.
Both players are keys to the Cubs’ success this season, but both of their injuries will be taken seriously by the team as they try and heal up the best that they can for the home stretch of the season. By being very much in the playoff chase, all of these players are must-plays in clutch situations, so their health will need to be watched closely.
Understand that the bullpen is the weak link, lean on starters
One of the most consistent aspects that this roster has been forced to deal with is the faltering of its bullpen at inopportune moments, which is something that Madden has been forced to handle with a ten-foot pole at times. With no real upgrades made in that department in either the offseason or at the trade deadline, sans for Kimbrel, Madden was given a tough deck to deal with, and mixed results have followed.
The other side of that presents an interesting outlook, as the team’s starting rotation has kept it in most games this season. Mostly riding on the backs of Jose Quintana and Jon Lester, this team has used its strong starting rotation to help balance out its faltering bullpen. However, Madden has had some questionable decisions regarding how long the rotation stays in the game, regardless of if he has pulled the plug too soon or if he has left them in for one batter too much, which is a constant argument that any manager must have with himself.
If this team understands that their starting rotation has gotten them to this point so far this season and that their bullpen is the weak link, then their decision-making process can be made a bit easier in late-game moments. Especially for both Quintana and Lester, they deserve to have the longest leashes on the entire team due to the types of pitchers that they have been so far this year.
Concerning injured superstar Yu Darvish, he is on track to start Saturday’s game against the Brewers, according to Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune. Whether or not he makes that start or even factors into the decision is another facet, but for Darvish, being loosely penciled in is a big-time step in the right direction for the high-paid, low-contributing starter.
The Cubs have the pieces to make a deep run into the 2019 MLB playoffs – it just is concerning that certain areas of this team have held them back as much as they have so far. If they improve in these three areas, then their odds of making noise in the postseason goes up dramatically.