The Cubs…wait…the World Champion Chicago Cubs…are a whopping 32-33. They have perfected mediocrity a year after posting one of the best seasons in MLB history. They’ve managed to do it without a serious injury. Why it’s happened is a series of unanswerable questions.
So let’s answer them!
Why didn’t the Cubs re-sign Dexter Fowler?
Well, Dexter signed a five-year, $82 million contract with the Cardinals, and so far that contract has been a terrible move, as Dex is hitting only .235/.327/.441 in 60 games. He’s 31, has never been a top notch defender and there’s no way the Cubs would have given him five years. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken five years to get him to come back, but the Cubs obviously didn’t want to make a longer term investment in him, and that’s fine. But they also didn’t replace him. Truth is, they didn’t think he would be back in 2016 until his market collapsed, and the reason they could bring him back even after spring training had started is because they hadn’t replaced him then, either.
The initial plan for 2017 was to have Jon Jay and Albert Almora split time in center. The problem with it of course is that Jay isn’t a terribly good outfielder, and Almora is, except for the small problem that he’s really slow, and so while he catches everything he gets to, he doesn’t get to everything you think he should. Despite the fact that Jay is off to a unsustainably good offensive start, and Almora has been better on offense than we feared, they are so clearly not the answer the Cubs brought up an erstwhile second baseman and played him in center. A lot.
So what can the Cubs do with center field?
Short of calling the Royals and telling them that the fine print of the Wade Davis-Jorge Soler trade says the Royals also have to send Lorenzo Cain to the Cubs in mid-June, it’s time for the Cubs to shit or get off the pot. If it means actually giving the Almora/Jay platoon an actual chance, then do it. If it means making a deal for somebody who can get on base and actually run, do that. If it means giving Kenny Lofton a call, OK, don’t do that. He’s like 50, now. Your impulse is to think of figuring out center field as being linked to solving the leadoff problem. Fight that impulse, or come to grips with the idea that you’ve adopted one of the key parts of thinking like Dusty Baker, dude. “Your centerfielder leads off, your second baseman bats second…doesn’t matter who they are. Hey, I ever tell you I used to play with Hank Aaron? What’s a pitch count? What do you mean Darren’s too big to sit on my lap in a press conference after we lose a playoff game?”
You do, however, have permission to punch anybody in the nose who seriously complains that they let Matt Szczur go. Matt’s lighting it up with the Padres and hitting cool .189.
Who should be leading off?
I’m the wrong person to ask for serious batting order analysis. I think it’s the most overrated thing that everybody in baseball obsesses over. In my mind, the most sensible batting order would simply be that you’d rank your starting lineup from best hitter to worst and bat them that way. I’d bat Kris Bryant first, Anthony Rizzo second, etc. You get your best hitters the most at bats over the course of the season. But nobody does that, so given the self-imposed restraints the Cubs and everybody else puts on themselves, who “should” the Cubs be leading off.
I was a fan of Joe Maddon’s original idea of leading off Kyle Schwarber, because games started Schwarber, Bryant, Rizzo. To this point, Schwarber hasn’t hit well in any spot. His disappointing start to the season has his stats looking like he’s a squattier version of Adam Dunn. He homers, he walks and he strikes out. He went nearly a month between singles from May 17 to June 12. When he gets into them he hits them a very looooong way, and I refuse to believe that he’s not going to hit for average. We forget that Kyle hasn’t really played that many big league games (still less than 162 regular season games), and it’s no fun to watch guys figure this shit out. You just want them to be good right away. Schwarber’s going to be good, and he’s going to be good this year, goddamnit. Because frankly, I won’t consider anything else.
Maddon insists he hasn’t given up on Schwarber batting first, but until Kyle mixes in a single or two to his weekly two homers and doubles it’s not going to happen.
Ben Zobrist is a logical choice for leadoff. He’s got a career on base average of .357, and at 35 he posted a .386 on base last year. The problem is that Zobrist has been bad and hurt (hopefully bad because he’s been hurt) this year. The other problem is that when healthy, Joe wants Zobrist batting behind Rizzo. Having a switch hitter behind Rizzo is a luxury because it really ties the hands of the opposing manager–especially when it’s somebody as dumb as say, Mike Matheny. The Cubs can bat Happ there, and he’s obviously got pop (he’s slugging .516 with seven homers in his first 91 at bats), but to do that you have to find a spot for him in the field (yeesh) and you have to put up with another young guy figuring it out on the job.
We haven’t really figured this out, have we? See, my idea of just batting the hitters from best to worst is looking better all the time.
How many starting pitchers do they need to add at the deadline?
Last year the Cubs rotation cruised through the season, only hitting a speedbump for a few weeks in late June and early July. This year they’ve spent most of the season stuck in a pothole. You can always count on Jon Lester, because Jon Lester is a man. Kyle Hendricks got off to a rough start but has mostly pitched very well since then. But now he’s on the DL with tendonitis in his hand. Why? Was he playing NES Track and Field? I mean yeah, that shit will fuck you up:
Jake Arrieta has been maddeningly inconsistent. His agent, Scott Boras insists he’s still an elite pitcher. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Jake’s finally a free agent after the season, or that Boras is full of horseshit.
Something named Eddie Butler is the fifth starter right now, he was needed to take over after Brett Anderson shit all over him self over and over again early in the season and then had to fake an injury to avoid being released.
And then, there’s John Lackey. We held our nose and watched him win 11 games and post only a 3.35 ERA last year. He was really productive. But he was crap in the playoffs, and he’s been worse this year. He’s 38 years old and he’s an ass. Watching him, purportedly a grown man, throw hissy fits on the mound when a teammate misplays a ball or when he feels an umpire misses a pitch. He swears, he stomps around, and then, almost without fail he gets lit up. His teammates defend him and say it doesn’t bother them and he’s a great guy. Yeah, I don’t buy that. Neither does his first wife.
Regardless, the Cubs can slot Mike Montgomery into one of the slots, though that weakens their bullpen. So, even if they do that, they have to add at least one starter via trade. A Ray Romano’s SportsCenter anchor character once said, “That cost is gonna be PRO-hibitive.” Especially since they really need two.
So why the hell are they bad?
I don’t think the answer is really all that complicated. For all of their greatness last year, part of what made it so amazing was how young they were. On most nights Zobrist is the only player older than 27 in the lineup. Schwarber and Happ are showing their age. Addison Russell at best created a whirlwind of shit for himself by not keeping it in his pants, and at worst has done something so vile that he deserves a very long unpaid vacation. Willson Contreras is only 25 and trying to handle struggling starting pitchers and play a key offensive part on the team.
The thing that makes this team seem like a ready-made dynasty is that youth, but it also means they’ll have ups and downs. You expect the older players to regress, but it’s supposed to be offset by the young guys getting better and better. As Theo Epstein is fond of saying, “Progress is not always linear.” Well, either is regression, but I digress.
By far, the best thing the Cubs have going for them is that their division is awful. Even at 32-33 the Cubs are in second place. They’re only 2.5 games behind the Brewers. Yeah, the Brewers. The Cubs are already seven games out of the second Wild Card spot (but that’s held by the ready-to-collapse-at-any-minute Diamondbacks), so the best path to the playoffs is through the Central.
They Cubs are going to win it. They have 97 games to get their shit together. Ninety-seven games for Schwarber to figure it out, for Happ to figure it out, for Zobrist to get healthy, for Arrieta to at least get back to his form of last year. They’ll add somebody at the deadline. The Central will rue the day that nobody ran out to a real lead while the Cubs were fucking around in the first half.
The core of the defending champs is still intact. They know from game four in San Francisco, games four, five and six against the Dodgers and, you may remember games five, six and seven of the World Series, how to start swinging with their backs against the wall.
It’s been frustrating to watch our kickass team muddle around for two and a half months.
But it’s not going to last.
Baseball’s season is long for a reason. It’s so the best teams have time to figure it out.
This one’s no different. When all is said and done, more will be said than done, and the Cubs will punch their ticket to the playoffs, and the rest of the National League will wish this Cubs season had ended when most of them have in our lifetimes.