By Adam Hatlan
The Chicago Cubs are currently in first place, but there is reason to be concerned.
The Cubs are three-and-a-half games ahead of the Brewers and four ahead of the suddenly surging St. Louis Cardinals. Not a huge division lead, but a lead nonetheless. They have scored the second-most runs, have the fourth-best team ERA, and possess the top run differential in the National League. They’ve got a possible MVP candidate in Javier Baez. They are on pace for 97 wins, five better than last year’s NLCS team. Everything is great in Wrigleyville…right?
On paper sure, everything seems to be going fine. Believe me, I’m as big of a Cubs fan as Bill Murray, but I’m concerned about the chances of this team making a run in the playoffs. Notice I said in the playoffs, because yes, I think they will still make the playoffs. Fortunately for the Cubs they don’t play in the AL this year, because if they did, this might be a conversation about what they would need to do to even make the playoffs.
When the Cubs get to the playoffs, I’m really hoping it’s as NL Central champs. Honestly, outside of newly acquired 34-year-old Cole Hamels, I wouldn’t trust anyone to take the mound in a Wild Card playoff game right now.
The bullpen has been solid, but what’s the story with Brandon Morrow? Is this guy nearing a return? The bullpen has been fairly reliable all season and acquisitions of Brandon Kintzler and Jesse Chavez have looked solid so far.
Lester dominated the first half, but has struggled mightily since the all-star break (his last start made me breathe a sigh of relief). Hendricks has been better in the second half, but has that one bad inning and implodes. Quintana looks so good at times, then gets into trouble midway through many games and like Hendricks, implodes. Mike Montgomery, one of the more reliable starters since the all-star break, recently landed on the DL with shoulder soreness. Tyler Chatwood was demoted to the bullpen, where he continues to walk batters at an alarming rate. The Cubs don’t have that dominant pitcher right now. Which brings me to Yu Darvish, the biggest enigma of them all.
Darvish was only able to last an inning in his most recent rehab start, this coming after his previous rehab start which provided another setback after that was all said and done. Although it hasn’t been confirmed, the Cubs are remaining weird about the whole situation, as they have all season. “We’re not overly concerned,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in late May about the state of Darvish’s injury. Not overly concerned? That was three months ago, Joe! Let’s face it Cubs fans. there is a good chance Darvish is done for the year, and (hopefully I’m wrong on this) a chance he is one of the biggest bust Cubs signings in recent memory.
For his seven year career, the 32-year-old Darvish has one season in which he has pitched north of 200 innings (second career season). He had Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2015 season. Since that surgery, over the course of three seasons, Darvish has an 18-20 record in 56 starts, throwing 327 innings for a 3.85 ERA. I said it when they signed him and I’ll say it again: the Cubs overpaid.
I digress. This is about the Cubs’ chances in the playoffs, not how they blew the signing of Darvish.
As far as the offense goes, they just completed a four game series against the Pirates in which they scored…four runs. All on solo home runs. A Pirate pitching staff ranked 10th in the NL in terms of ERA. Granted the Pirates have one of the better staffs since the break, but the Cubs offense is still one of the top in the NL and should be able to handle a .500 team. Right?
The Cubs, typically with an offense that surges in the second half under Joe Maddon, has sputtered since the break. They rank 12th in terms of scoring in the second half. The same team that was averaging 5.11 runs per game before the break is down to 3.73 after. Injuries have played a part, notably Kris Bryant, but the Cubs lead the majors in games in which they score one or fewer runs. A team with that many hitters should be able to absorb the blow of Bryant, especially considering he was having a down year himself. On the flip side, they lead the majors in games of eight runs or more. Boom or bust baby!
But that’s what concerns me: the boom or bust nature of the offense. Come playoff time, boom or bust won’t cut it, not in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series. Clutch hitting will make or break how far this team goes, not scoring 20 runs in one game and struggling for three hits the next.
If the bullpen can get Morrow back and keep doing what they’ve been doing, that seems to be a consistent part of this ball club right now and should be a strength in the postseason. A good bullpen often determines if a team can make it to the Fall Classic.
Come playoff time, starting pitchers need to be dominant, not so-so. Playoff experience will be helpful, and Lester, Hamels, and Hendricks provide that. Quintana got a small taste last year, too. Point is, these guys will have to be far better than they have been during the regular season if this team wants to make a run. Maybe the playoff experience will give them an added boost to be dominant.
I’ll ask again: should we be worried about the Cubs, even though they are in first place? Sure, at least a little bit, especially with the struggles of the starting pitching and the recent inconsistencies of the offense. But do I think they have the talent to make a deep run in October? Absolutely. I’m just hoping it all starts clicking at the same time.