Cubs

Six things we learned about the Cubs in July

Six things we learned about the Cubs in July

If you thought Cubs fans were panicking in June, then July was clearly a rude awakening. The All-Star break came at a perfect time for Joe Maddon’s group, cutting off a stretch of 24 games in 24 days that made them look awfully weary. Of course, losing will do that to a team, too.

After ending June on a down note, the Cubs carried that right over into July, dropping eight of the first 10 games, including the last three of a four-game sweep in New York.

So the Cubs are not superhuman, but they still entered August with the high from one of the craziest wins in franchise history and the best record in baseball.

Let's run down what else we learned about the Cubs in July:

1. Rest is a top priority.

The Cubs showed that no matter how much talent a team possesses, these are still human beings who get tired, banged up and worn out.

That stretch of 24 games in 24 days - which veteran Ben Zobrist thinks is the longest he's ever played without a break in his 11-year career - was tough to watch for a fan base that may have started taking things for granted a little bit after such a hot start.

But that happens. Almost no team can cruise through a 162-game season without any extended down stretch, and the front office and coaching staff knew that even before July.

So the Cubs are prioritizing rest. Maddon is giving pretty much everybody regular days off, including two in a row for Zobrist during the first weekend after the All-Star break.

The Cubs brought up Brian Matusz to start Sunday night in an attempt to give their starting rotation an extra day off, and while that experiment was short-lived, the thought still remains the same - rest is key.

The Cubs aren't just focused on the regular season. They have their eyes fixed firmly on the World Series and they want to be healthy and fresh entering October. Which leads to the next point...

2. They are going all-in for a shot at a title.

The Cubs are pulling out all the stops, sending arguably their top prospect (Gleyber Torres), a big-league pitcher who had already served as a sixth man in the rotation (Adam Warren) and two minor-league outfielders for a rental closer who will become a free agent this winter.

Aroldis Chapman came to Chicago in the final week of July with some baggage, but he also brought the lightning rod of a left arm that makes him a "Game Over" closer.

The Cubs also traded away a couple of prospects for Mike Montgomery in the middle of July and dealt a minor-leaguer to the Los Angeles Angels before the Aug. 1 deadline to get right-hander Joe Smith.

The moves sent a clear message from Theo Epstein. As the president of baseball operations said after acquiring Chapman: "If not now, when?"

3. The bullpen is now a major strength.

Maddon is heralded as one of the best bullpen managers in the game, and he has plenty of options now.

With Chapman as the anchor, Maddon can roll out Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop as the top setup men while Montgomery and Smith can work as a lefty/righty tandem in the middle innings.

Oh, and then there's Carl Edwards Jr. (who is hitting his stride and looking dominant during his second stint in the big leagues), plus the always-reliable Travis Wood (who has also emerged as a valuable outfield glove in a pinch) and veteran Joe Nathan (who has 377 career saves and has not allowed a run - despite allowing four baserunners - in his first three appearances since returning from his second Tommy John surgery).

Who knows if Nathan can hold up, or if Edwards can keep this up? Montgomery and Smith have had their struggles this season. But this bullpen has all the makings of a major asset in the postseason.

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4. Dexter Fowler is one of the most valuable players on the roster.

Fowler's "you go, we go" approach as the leadoff hitter was sorely missed during that tough stretch, but the center fielder returned and has immediately brought another presence to the lineup.

When he's seeing pitches and drawing walks atop the order, it sets a tone for the rest of the Cubs.

It also allows Maddon to slot the rest of the hitters in behind Fowler, with Kris Bryant second, Anthony Rizzo third and Ben Zobrist fourth.

Fowler was the last player to sign - during the first week of spring training - but his stabilizing presence begs the question: Where would the Cubs be without him this season?

5. Depth is everywhere.

Despite trading for Chapman, Montgomery and Smith, the Cubs didn't feel any pressure to make any other moves at the trade deadline to add to their starting rotation or group of position players.

As it is, the Cubs have had some tough roster squeezes lately to accommodate the guys already on the team.

Tommy La Stella - a valuable role player with an .846 OPS - was sent down to the minor leagues to make room for veteran Chris Coghlan.

Justin Grimm - a reliever who has made 180 appearances for the Cubs over the last three seasons - was demoted to the minors to make room for Matusz (since designated for assignment).

Outfielder Jorge Soler and pitcher Trevor Cahill are on rehab assignments. Where will all these guys fit?

These kinds of roster moves have a way of working themselves out between injuries and performance, and the September roster expansion is just a few weeks out. But depth will be key for a team that is hoping to have another three months of baseball left to play in 2016.

6. They have another nice run in them.

The Cubs got off to a scorching hot start and have since fallen back to Earth, but they strongly feel that another long stretch of winning is just around the corner.

"We always believe we're capable of doing it," Zobrist said. "We don't think about a run of 30 games in a row. We think about today, and today only.

"But you have to get hot. We haven't been hot since May. We've been cold for a while. So we know that we've got it in us to get hot and get hot for a long time.

"We hope that's coming. We just have to play one game at a time."

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: