- CLUTCH Summary: The Chicago Cubs remain in solid spot to contend for the National League Central crown.
- One of the most polarizing teams in all of baseball, though, they’ve not really lived to up preseason expectations.
- The dog days of Summer are over, and a true playoff push begins right now.
When Spring Training began, the Chicago Cubs were one of the most polarizing teams in baseball, according to various projections. While some models (FanGraphs) had the Cubs finishing at the top of the National League Central with around 87 wins, others–like PECOTA–knocked the team for an aging rotation, guessing that the Cubs would finish fourth in the Central with 79 wins.
After all, the division had seemingly grown increasingly competitive given the emergence of the Milwaukee Brewers and the significant offseason additions made by the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.
What has transpired since then has made it clear: the Cubs are the most talented and balanced team in the division. But will they finish the regular season as the best team in the Central?
The Cubs have shown the capacity for being the best team in the National League. Kris Bryant has gotten back on track alongside strong performances from Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo, and the decision to pick up Cole Hamels’ $20 million option has paid major dividends.
At other times, Chicago can be bewilderingly bad. The offense will occasionally disappear for games at a time, and the bullpen has been a constant question given the struggles of Pedro Strop, Brad Brach (since DFA’d) and Carl Edwards Jr. (traded).
After a 5-1 homestand that included a sweep of the Brewers, the Cubs have opened up a three-game lead over Milwaukee. But both the Brewers and Cardinals are within striking distance, and none of the three teams seem to want to run away with the division. Perhaps now is that time for Chicago.
Here are four keys to winning the NL Central for the Cubs:
4. Quality starts on the road
It would be easy to just say: “win on the road.” After all, the Cubs had a putrid 21-33 road record entering play on Thursday despite a positive run differential and a history of success on the road under manager Joe Maddon. But let’s dig a little bit deeper than that to assess the heart of the problem.
Yes, Chicago’s offense struggled to generate runs in their most recent road trip, which included visits to San Francisco, Milwaukee and St. Louis. However, they are still averaging close to five runs per game on the road this season. While certain guys–like Baez and Rizzo–are markedly better hitters at Wrigley Field, the team’s batting splits are relatively equal.
By contrast, Cubs starters have struggled away from home. Well, two of them in particular.
Kyle Hendricks has been brilliant at Wrigley (sub-2.00 ERA in 10 starts), but he has a 4.32 road ERA, and opponents’ OPS is over 240 points higher against Hendricks when they face him in their home ballpark. Meanwhile, Jon Lester has a 4.81 road ERA, though his home WHIP and opposing OPS are actually higher than the respect road numbers.
Both Hendricks and Lester were the anchors of the pitching staff when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. The finished 1-2 in ERA, and both placed in the top three of NL Cy Young Award voting. Hendricks has appeared utterly dominant at times, while Lester has gutted out a number of wins. They need to be just as dogged and focused on the road.
Hamels, Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana have all pitched pretty well on the road (Quintana’s road ERA is skewed by an awful start against the Brewers in April), but each stand to see improvement if they are buoyed by equally impressive performances from Hendricks and Hamels.
In 2018, nearly every member of the rotation had their best month in September. This is a group that tends to feed off of one another, and stringing together quality starts on the road would go a long way towards giving the Cubs plenty of opportunities to win.
3. Figure out bullpen roles
Joe Maddon has not had a ton of bullpen depth to work with this season. Before the Cubs sign Kimbrel in June, their primary additions to the relief corps were Brad Brach and Xavier Cedeno. As has been previously mentioned, Brach was DFA’d, while Cedeno has been injured for all but five games.
Especially given how badly Pedro Strop has performed as well as the purported lack of arm talent in Chicago’s farm system, the bullpen has been a puzzle all season long. Maddon has juggled his relievers to the best of his ability, but he has still made some questionable decisions.
Guys like Steve Cishek simply have not seemed suited to the setup role, and some feel that Maddon’s inconsistent and high-leverage usage of Edwards may have ruined him.
Luckily for the Cubs, however, some of the call-ups have indeed shown promise. Rowan Wick has a 1.98 ERA and 9.9 K/9 through his first 13 games, and has shown some fiery flair on the hill. Meanwhile, Duane Underwood Jr. struck out all six batters he faced in his 2019 debut on Tuesday against the Athletics.
This is a tough time for Maddon to be sketching out roles, considering that both Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler are on the Injured List, and there is still a possibility that Brandon Morrow could make his return sometime in September.
That said, the bullpen roles need to be firmly in place for the home stretch. Perhaps the likes of Underwood and newcomer David Phelps will get more innings on this road trip and assert themselves as reliable options. Maybe Wick dominates in the eighth inning of some tight games.
Regardless, Maddon cannot continue to experiment. If Strop still does not have velocity, for example, he should not be working in the later innings.
2. Let Ian Happ loose at 2B
While the Cubs have a superstar and franchise cornerstone with Baez at shortstop, finding the right partner for him up the middle has been a perplexing question.
Initially, veteran signing Daniel Descalso seemed like an invaluable asset at second base. Descalso hit .263 with a .757 OPS in April, giving the Cubs production during their early-season struggles. However, Descalso soon faded, hitting .094 in May.
Veteran utility player and 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist was not much of an option either. Zobrist never really got in a rhythm before he took a leave of absence to deal with some personal issues. Zobrist is currently participating in a rehab assignment and hopes to return at the end of this month, but there is no guarantee that he will find his groove and return as a playing regular before the end of the season.
The Addison Russell experiment was pretty much a nightmare, both on the field and from an organizational standpoint.
Chicago gave Robel Garcia a try, but his sky-high strikeout rate and subsequently low walk rate could not make up for his high slugging percentage.
Since the trade deadline, Maddon has mostly resorted to using David Bote and Tony Kemp (acquired from the Astros) at second. But given how well Happ has performed since he was promoted to the bigs, he needs to be the starter.
In Happ’s first 12 games this season, he is slashing .320/.452/.600 with a 19 percent walk rate mirroring his 19 percent strikeout rate. The Cubs promoted Happ in part due to a three-week tear at Triple-A Iowa, and he has stayed in form since coming up.
Simply put, Happ should be the everyday guy at second base until someone else proves to be a better option. Yes, it is an incredibly low sample size, but Happ is running a higher walk rate than Mike Trout. Likewise, considering that he posted a 15 percent walk rate last season, there is reason to believe that these numbers are no fluke.
Happ may take his lumps in the coming weeks, and the strikeout rate could indeed rise. Still, the Cubs need more on-base guys, and Happ provides just that while also having the potential to hit the ball out of the yard and drive in runs.
Maddon said it was “big boy time.” Happ is ready for the added responsibility, and he gives the Cubs the best chance to win on a daily basis.
1. Get healthy…and stay healthy
This point has a fairly specific correlation with the bullpen, but Chicago must get to full strength for the home stretch. One injury can make the slightest difference, something that the Cubs experienced when they lost Strop to a hamstring injury last September and eventually lost the division when the Brewers defeated them in a Game 163.
Although he is currently on IL, Kimbrel will likely return after the minimum 10 days are up. Kintzler may be in the same position. Chicago can ill afford setbacks for either of those guys, who are indispensable as far as the bullpen is concerned.
Similarly, returns from Zobrist and Morrow would be welcomed by the club. Even if Zobrist does not have much to contribute on the field, he is unquestionably one of the veteran leaders of the team and one of the most respected players in the locker room.
Morrow has not pitched in over a full year, and his return could murky the waters in terms of bullpen roles. At the same time, he has electric stuff, and the Cubs need every arm at their disposal.
Naturally, every contender hopes to be healthy come October. But the Cubs are especially fragile in this respect because they do not have the same kind of depth as teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers or Houston Astros.
The Cubs have the capacity to pull away from the rest of the division, but they need everyone to get healthy as soon as possible.