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Amidst Their Struggles, the Cubs Are in Prime Position for October

Despite their struggles and injury problems this season, Daniel Shepard writes the Cubs are in a prime position for another year of postseason baseball. Read about it here.

This past offseason, the Chicago Cubs made all the necessary moves that come with fielding a championship-caliber team. After losing 40 percent of their starting rotation following the 2017 campaign, the Cubs’ brass opened the check book and inked Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to multi-year deals, coupling them with Jose Quintana, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, three pitchers all under club control beyond 2018.

The allure of the aforementioned group of starters went beyond the contract control exercised by the Cubs, instead rooting itself in the idea this could be one of the best starting staffs to ever take the mound at Wrigley Field. Lester had just finished a down year, posting an ERA north of four, but was only two years removed from finishing second in the National League Cy Young voting and playing a key part in the Cubs’ 2016 run.

Additionally, both Hendricks and Quintana had developed reputations for being top-tier starters with the former set to become a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Cubs after posting back-to-back seasons with sparkling ERA’s and solid peripheral numbers to boot. Darvish, the $126 million deal man, was fresh off allowing eight earned runs over 3.1 innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series while the Cubs hoped Chatwood’s solid numbers outside of Coors Field would translate to Wrigley.

It’s Safe to Say Things Have Not Panned Out

Fast forward to mid-August and what used to be a solid starting rotation in many people’s minds has turned into one of the greatest weaknesses for this club. As things currently stand, Darvish has pitched just 40 innings at the major league level this season, posting a 4.95 ERA and 1-3 record. The majority of Darvish’s innings came back in April as the right-hander has battled tricep issues all season, ultimately landing on the DL in mid-May with a possible September return looming.

Darvish’s injury prompted the Cubs to promote lefty swing-man Mike Montgomery into the starting rotation, a role many felt should have been his when the club broke camp in March. Nonetheless, Montgomery has done his part thus far, posting a 3.08 ERA in 13 starts this season. Despite that, the southpaw is quickly nearing a career-high in innings (130.2) he sat back in 2017. It’s that reason and perhaps a concern for his health that prompted the Cubs to skip Montgomery’s last turn through the rotation. Now, one day ahead of the left-hander’s next scheduled start, the Cubs placed Montgomery on the 10-day DL with left shoulder inflammation, instead calling on Chatwood to make the start in his place. Hopefully, this injury is nothing major and is just a measure taken to give the southpaw more rest before the start of postseason play.

While Montgomery has been solid in Darivsh’s stead, other members of the rotation have struggled for much of the season. Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood had all failed to live up to their pre-season billing. Early in the season, Hendricks seemed poised to make the jump into the elite level of starting pitchers the Cubs could use more of. In both April and May, the right-hander posted mid-3.00 ERA’s, sporting a 3.19 mark on May 30. Despite that, Hendricks unraveled in the month of June to the tune of a 7.03 ERA, allowing 19 earned runs and five home runs in just 24.1 innings.

A bounce-back month for Hendricks was in order during July as the right-hander worked to a 3.34 ERA, driving his ERA south of four and solving his walk issue (just five free passes in 35 innings. Even with his walk problems solved (two in 17.2 innings thus far in August), Hendricks is sporting a 5.09 ERA through three August starts.

Quintana, the one time picture of consistency for a starting pitcher, is resorting back to the caliber of play he was performing at prior to his trade to the Cubs in July of 2017. In the first half of 2017, Quintana posted a 4.49 ERA with the Chicago White Sox, logging an ERA-plus of 95 and a WHIP of 1.323. Across 23 starts spanning 125 innings this season, the left-hander owns a 4.46 ERA while at the same time posting an ERA-plus of 96 and a WHIP approaching 1.400.

That leaves us with Chatwood. Of the struggling starters in the Cubs’ rotation this season, the right-hander has far-and-away been the worst of the group. Prior to getting sent to the bullpen earlier in the season, Chatwood was sporting a 4.98 ERA across 94 innings as a starter. Additionally, Chatwood walked an alarming number of batters, 85, registering a WHIP of 1.777. While pitching out of the rotation, Chatwood actually issued more free passes (85) than hits (82) and strikeouts (82).

A Hot-and-Cold Offense Has Not Helped Things

The one way to combat a struggling starting rotation is to score runs in bunches. So far this season, the Cubs’ offense has done just that, scoring the seventh most runs (585) in baseball. Despite that, one would not classify the Cubs’ offensive group as the most consistent lot in the game.

Consider this statistic. In wins this season, the Cubs are hitting .306 with an OPS of .880 and an sOPS-plus of 109. That OPS-plus number suggests the Cubs are nine percent better than league average in their wins this season, a good sign. What’s not so good is this. In losses, the Cubs are hitting .203 as a group with an OPS of .588. Their sOPS-plus for losses is 94, meaning as a group, the club is six percent worse in losses than league average.

While that in itself is not terribly troubling, it helps to show that when the Cubs are victorious, they tend to perform really well and when they lose, they tend to get completely shut down by the opposition.

Much of the Cubs’ offensive problems this season have stemmed from the health of Kris Bryant. Without their former MVP in the lineup, the Cubs’ order losses a significant amount of power even with Bryant’s replacements playing well at the moment.

Since Bryant went on the DL for the first time in mid-June, the Cubs’ offense has not been the same. After posting three straight months in the top-ten in runs scored, the Cubs fell to 12th this month while at the same time dropping from fifth in ISO during the month of May to 23rd in the category in June, 22nd in July and currently 23rd in August. To go along with that, the Cubs’ team batting average has fallen from fourth in June to eighth in July to now 18th this month, with their team wRC+ falling ten spots from 11th last month to 21st this month.

That fall in production can not be solely traced back to the absence of Bryant as Ian Happ, Addison RussellKyle Schwarber and others have all struggled to hit the ball with authority since the All-Star break.

Through it All, the Cubs Have the NL’s Best Chance to Make the Postseason

This time last season, the Cubs were nursing a one-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers while sitting at 63-57. In 2018, the Cubs have actually fared much better. With their 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday night, the Cubs moved to a season-high 20 games over .500 at 70-50, pushing their lead in the National League Central to another season-high of 3.5 games.

That 3.5 game lead currently represents the biggest in the National League by two games, giving the Cubs an NL best 95 percent chance to make the postseason and 79 percent chance to win their division. For contrast, the Brewers have just a 57 percent chance to play October baseball and a 13 percent chance to win the division.

Those odds have been greatly helped out by the addition of Cole Hamels. Days prior to the non-waiver trade deadline, the Cubs’ brass swung their second deal with the Texas Rangers this season, landing the veteran southpaw. What had been a rough go of things for Hamels in Texas (4.72 ERA) has turned into a solid stretch of starts that is giving the Cubs a much-needed boost.

Through three starts, Hamels owns a 1.00 ERA and perhaps most importantly, has only issued four walks while striking out 20. Just five days ago, in his last start, Hamels tossed seven innings of one-run, one-hit baseball while at the same time striking out nine and walking one. That start came against the Washington Nationals in a game that had a postseason vibe about it. To make things even more special for Cubs fans, the club proved they could overcome a terrific outing by Max Scherzer, as David Bote launched a walk-off grand slam in a 4-3 victory for the home team.

Right now, even with all their struggles, it would be difficult to not call the Cubs one of the best teams in baseball. I mean, the Cubs currently rank second in team batting average, first in OBP, eighth in wRC+ and third in WAR as an offensive unit.

On the pitching side, the Cubs’ starting staff rank 16th in ERA, 20th in K/9, 29th in BB/9 and 22nd in FIP. While those numbers are troubling, especially considering their recent lackluster play, the rotation is about to get some reinforcements. Darvish, who as mentioned above has been out for an extended amount of time, is getting closer and closer to returning. Right now, it seems likely Darvish could be back, barring any set-backs, sometime in the early part of September. Additionally, Jon Lester showed a sign on Thursday that he could be returning to his first half self again.

Since posting an ERA of 2.58 in the first half, adding another All-Star selection to his long resume, Lester has not been the same pitcher, posting an ERA north of ten prior to his start on Thursday.

In that start, the southpaw tossed six strong innings against the Pirates, quieting, at least for now, the talks of stashing the veteran on the DL so he could refocus.

Along with the return of Darvish, the Cubs are hopeful closer Brandon Morrow will be making his return from the DL in short order. The right-hander has missed 27 games with right biceps inflammation, adding to his already injury-prone career. Despite that, Morrow is now throwing on a regular basis, so the idea he could be back by the second week of September would not be out of the question.

Morrow’s return would only strengthen an already solid Cubs’ bullpen. Entering play on Friday, the Cubs owned the fourth best bullpen ERA (3.30) in the majors. The 33-year-old’s 1.47 ERA before hitting the DL and solid postseason performances in year’s prior can only continue to exercise what has been the muscle for the Cubs during much of the season.

Overall, this season has been riddled with injuries unlike any fans have seen since Joe Maddon took over the helm. Those injuries and lackluster play by some key players, have quieted the talks about other World Series title at the end of this season.

However, the Cubs still sit in the best position possible to make the postseason given the cards they were dealt this year. Most other teams would have crumbled much like the Nationals have done this year if they would have had to deal with the assortment of injuries the Cubs have seen this season. Mid-way through August, the Cubs are a few weeks away from returning to full health, barring another injury, for really the first time this season. It’s for that reason one should not panic about the position the Cubs are in currently. Instead, sit-back and enjoy the final month and a half of Cubs’ regular season baseball as they tune themselves up for another interesting year of postseason baseball.

Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Chicago Sports Column  

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