The sky is not falling: Reason for optimism regarding Cubs' playoff chances

The sky is not falling: Reason for optimism regarding Cubs' playoff chances

The Cubs are obviously not off to the start they want in their title defense campaign, but things aren't as gloomy as their 25-26 record would indicate.

Yes, the 2017 Cubs have 20 more losses than they did a year ago at the time of their 25th victory (they began 2016 on a torrid 25-6 pace). 

In fact, the Cubs didn't even reach their 26th loss until June 25 last season and they had already racked up 48 wins and 10-game lead in the division by that point. By comparison, on the final day of May last season, the Cubs were 35-15 with a +128 run differential and 6.5 lead over the 29-22 Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Central.

Following five straight losses, the Cubs woke up Wednesday morning with only a +1 run differential, but they're also only 1.5 games out of first place thanks to the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers winning just three of their last 10 games apiece.

Currently, the NL Central is far and away the worst division in baseball, which is interesting given this is the same unit that sent three teams to the playoffs in 2015.

But it's the weakness of the division that is the Cubs' saving grace right now, at least in terms of panic.

In fact, FanGraphs' playoff odds still give the Cubs an 85.6 percent chance of making the postseason:

That's down from 95.6 percent at the start of the season, but the Cardinals (46.3 percent down to 44 percent) and Pirates (15.5 percent down to 9.4 percent) have also seen a drop in their own playoff odds while the first-place Milwaukee Brewers are only handed a 6 percent chance of making the postseason.

Coming off the 7-2 homestand a little over a week ago, the Cubs were 25-21 and sitting atop the division heading into a weekend in Los Angeles. At that time, the Cubs' playoff odds sat at 93.3 percent wiht an expected won-loss record of 93-69.

So things have dropped a bit thanks to this five-game losing streak — Cubs are now projected to go 90-72 with those 85.6 percent odds of making the postseason — but it's not as precipitious as it may seem. Part of the freak-out is because two of those losses have come to the San Diego Padres, the only team that woke up Wednesday morning with a 0.0 percent chance of making the playoffs.

FanGraphs still gives the Cubs an 11.7 percent chance to win the World Series, down only slightly from the 15.3 percent on Opening Day.

Only the Los Angeles Dodgers (19.4 percent), Cleveland Indians (15.3 percent) and Houston Astros (15.1 percent) have better odds to win it all.

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

Whatever Kris Bryant does from here, it's just frosting on the cake that is his legacy.

That's one way to look at the lasting impact of a guy like Bryant, who morphed from "The Chosen One" as the No. 2 overall pick. He's lived up to the hype from Day 1, has a Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Award in his trophy case and — most importantly of all — led the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

A slump in May and June of 2018 won't tarnish that legacy.

But you can also forgive Cubs fans if they're growing a little antsy with their stud player. 

Just rest easy that he's growing a little antsy, too.

After chronicling his "temper tantrums" and actually admitting he gets so angry he is prone to breaking bats in frustration (still find that really hard to believe) last week, Bryant still isn't quite over his slump.

Maybe he's just simply trying to do too much right now.

"Kris is fine," Jon Lester said. "I mean, I think anytime you have a guy like that, he's got such high expectations not only of himself but the other people outside of the baseball world.

"I think he feels that — he feels pressure from his teammates, he feels pressure from himself and he wants to perform and he wants to do well every night. When he doesn't, it seems like he just keeps adding on. The rock on his back gets a little bigger every time."

As recently as May 22, Bryant was hitting .303 with a 1.007 OPS.

But since then — a span of 21 games — he's hitting just .241 with a .316 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage, good for a .627 OPS. More alarming than anything, he's struck out 28 times in 87 at-bats, taking a step back in the area he has made the most improvement in since breaking into the league in 2015.

The power has been an issue for even longer. Bryant just recently went a month without a homer before sending one into the bleachers Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Still, since May 15, he has only 8 extra-base hits (7 doubles and that 1 homer) in 27 games.

The struggle is real right now, but that hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 17-11 during Bryant's dip in power.

GM Jed Hoyer reiterated again that Bryant is the last guy the Cubs worry about in the big picture.

"The way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, I feel like he's contributing to wins even when he might be struggling at the plate a little bit," Hoyer said Monday evening. "With guys like him, I always look at it and think to myself — that means a hot streak is right around the corner.

"I said that about Anthony [Rizzo] in April when he was struggling and he's been great since May 1. I think Kris will have the same kind of turnaraound. With him, it's just a matter of when he breaks out.

"Over the course of the season, every great player goes through one or two big slumps. We're in a strange sport where even the greatest players are not slump-proof. He'll get out of it and we'll all reap the benefits when he does."

Even with the struggles, Bryant ranks 23rd among position players in WAR (Fangraphs) with 2.3, pacing the Cubs in that category. That still puts him on pace for a roughly 6-WAR pace, which would be his lowest throughout his MLB career but is still very clearly elite.

In an effort to get him back to the "KB" we've seen so much over the last four years, Joe Maddon has twice resorted to bumping him to the top of the lineup, including Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

Maddon is hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reinstill in Bryant's head that he doesn't need to be a power hitter to help the team win.

For right now, it works. After all, Bryant is still tied for 9th in baseball in OBP (.389). 

"You really do start trying too hard," Maddon said. "You try to force things as opposed to letting them come to you. Especially a power guy that's not hit home runs in a bit. My take on power guys is that it normally is cyclical. They'll get it for a while, then they'll get away with it, then it comes back."

Like Hoyer, Maddon talked up Bryant's abilities as a "winning player" in every other area of the game even when he's not going yard. That includes his daily hustle and effort.

"When a guy like him goes through this moment, I want him to focus on that — not homers," Maddon said. "He probably hears that way too much about the power situation and I'm really not interested in that. 

"Put him back in the leadoff spot for the reasons I just said — he can help win a game in so many different ways and I want him to just focus on that. ... He needs our support; he's gonna get it. I just put him in that top spot to readjust how he's thinking and that's all."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are we seeing a playoff preview between the Cubs and Dodgers?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Are we seeing a playoff preview between the Cubs and Dodgers?

Kap is joined by Doug Glanville, Nick Friedell, and Seth Gruen. The guys preview the NLCS rematch at Wrigley between the Cubs and Dodgers, discuss Kris Bryant's return to the leadoff spot, and consider the possibility of a 6-man rotation upon Darvish's return from the DL.

Plus, the guys weigh in on the Bulls' options in the NBA Draft on Thursday.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live podcast here