Cubs

Lessons and questions from the first half of the Cubs schedule

Cubs

The Cubs have officially reached the halfway point of this unprecedented 2020 season. Despite recent struggles, they sit atop the NL Central with an 18-12 record.

Even more impressively, they are believed to still have a perfect COVID-19 record among players, having no tests come back positive for that group since intake testing.

“This is historic for what we're doing, and our guys are doing a great job,” Cubs manager David Ross said Wednesday, reflecting on the first half of the season. “They're working, they continue to try to get better, they come in every day with a mindset to have fun and try to win that night’s ball game, and kind of let it go afterwards.

“Everybody to a man seems to be on board with what's going on and doing what's best for the group and understanding these are unique circumstances. I'm extremely proud of this group.”

The Cardinals (11-9) are second in the division as they race to make up two weeks-worth of postponed games due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

So, the Cubs’ path to the expanded playoffs looks to be well paved. But the club still has some concerns to address.

In terms of on-field performance goes, here are three things we’ve learned about this team in the first half of the season and three questions the second half will answer:

Yu Darvish is in the running for the NL Cy Young

Darvish has proven that the second half of last year was no fluke. He applauded Cub pitching coach Tommy Hottovy for helping him embrace his naturally slow tempo. And it’s worked.

 

"Yu Darvish being free to be himself is the magic formula," Ross said last week.

Perhaps Darvish’s most impressive performance was his latest, when he held a White Sox team that had scored 17 runs against the Cubs in the first two games of the series to just one run in seven innings.

Entering play Thursday, Darvish ranked among MLB’s top 5 in ERA (1.70), wins (5) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.33).

What role will José Quintana play in the second half?

Speaking of the Cubs’ starting rotation, Quintana could be the most impactful change in that group in the latter half of the season.

“We could potentially get Q at the (trade) deadline again this year,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy predicted a month ago, “and kind of give us the jolt we need at that time.”

Sure enough, Quintana returned from injury on Tuesday to make his 2020 debut out of the bullpen. Fatigue seemed to play a role his last partial inning, but he faced just one over the minimum in the first three innings he pitched.

“I want to start games,” Quintana said after that outing.

And if he keeps pitching like that, the Cubs should give him the chance. In the meantime, he’ll be a helpful addition to bullpen with only one other left-hander.

Ian Happ is indeed “the real deal”

Ross said it best. Succinct and to the point.

After the Cubs’ recent offensive struggles, no hitter is batting over .300. But Happ is the closest (.287). And he’s done an admirable job filling in at the top of the order for Kris Bryant (left wrist, ring finger). In 11 games batting leadoff, Happ has hit three home runs.

Even Bryant said he’d be happy to relinquish the leadoff spot when he returns from the injured list, if he’s asked to do so.

Will we see a healthy Kris Bryant this season?

At the earliest, Bryant is eligible to return from the IL this weekend. He’s there for a sprained finger, but he got an injection to deal with a left wrist injury. Earlier in the year, his left elbow was bothering him.

Even a banged-up Bryant makes the Cubs better, and certainly a healthy one would provide a boost. But there’s no guarantee that his nagging injuries will disappear by October.

The Cubs offense can be super streaky

Through the Cubs’ first five series of the season, the team was batting .244 and slugging .432.  In their four most recent series – against the Brewers, Cardinals, White Sox and Tigers – those numbers have dropped to .210 and.371.

What will Javier Báez’s production be like in the second half of the season?

Báez seems to be breaking out of his slump. He had three hits, two of them home runs, in the Cubs’ 9-3 win at Detroit on Monday. The Cubs shortstop is on a six-game hitting streak after starting the season with a sub-.200 batting average.

 

In a normal season, Báez’s slow start would barely be a story. But in a 60-game season, the Cubs have missed his bat especially against left-handed pitching.

"This guy's an unbelievably talented player,” Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber said of Báez earlier this week. “It is what it is right now, but once he starts putting some really good at-bats in, watch out."