5 Cubs X-factors for the final month of the 2019 season

5 Cubs X-factors for the final month of the 2019 season

The Cubs have reinforcements on the way, but they enter the final month of the season looking up at the Cardinals.

It's a close division race that will likely come down to the wire. The Cubs and Cardinals play each other seven times over the final 10 games of the season and it's very possible that last week-and-a-half will decide the fate of the NL Central.

"We have a great team and I know we're gonna add some guys, which are gonna be a big help," Cole Hamels said. "But it comes down to us and who wants it more. This division is not gonna be easy. It was never gonna be easy."

With that, let's take a look at the top x-factors down the stretch:

1. Ben Zobrist

Of course.

It's been one of the most buzz-worthy stories of the Cubs season and it's an unprecedented situation. It's not every day a 38-year-old former World Series MVP steps away from the game for four months to deal with a family situation and then return for the final few weeks of the season during which his team is in a tight pennant race

But this is a no-risk, high-reward play for the Cubs. There's absolutely no downside to seeing what Zobrist can give this team.

With expanded rosters, the Cubs aren't wasting a spot and they've been searching for production out of the leadoff spot and second-base position all season. It's entirely possible Zobrist is able to help both of those problems, not to mention the lift he can provide in the clubhouse as a respected veteran and beloved teammate.

"Honestly, it's just gonna be good to see him," Anthony Rizzo said. "Good to have him here. Baseball-wise, he's a great at-bat every time he hits. I don't care if he takes five years off, he can come back and be able to work an at-bat. It will be nice to have his personality and spirit here."

Zobrist won't play every day, but the potential is there for him to come up with some key hits and lend a hand in making the Cubs offense more consistent down the stretch.

2. Willson Contreras' hamstring and Anthony Rizzo's back

These go hand-in-hand because they're two tricky injuries to two of the Cubs' most important players.

Rizzo returned from a five-game absence to rejoin the lineup Saturday and Contreras played his first rehab game for Triple-A Iowa Friday with another on tap for Saturday.

Rizzo has dealt with minor back issues throughout his career and this is the second time this season, but he said this particular issue was a different part of the back than where he's typically felt tightness. 

He may not be 100 percent, but hardly any everyday player is at this point in the season. How he manages the back pain and whether or not it locks up again will be a huge key over the final month. The wild-card of the whole situation is how it can crop up with absolutely no warning, like this most recent issue when he felt it "grab" while he was running the bases against the Nationals last weekend.

The Cubs need Rizzo's Gold Glove defense at first base and steady presence in the lineup as often as possible if they're gonna catch - and hold off - the Cardinals.

Contreras, meanwhile, should be fresh by the time he returns, with more than four weeks off to recover after his initial injury (Aug. 3). It'd be hard to see the Cubs utilizing him as an everyday catcher upon his return, but they shouldn't have to with Victor Caratini's emergence and Jonathan Lucroy's veteran presence. 

But the Cubs could really use Contreras' bat in the starting lineup and those 15 or so games he plays in September could be huge. 

3. The Cardinals

The Cubs cannot control what the Cardinals do, and the division leaders are red-hot right now, with a 30-14 record since July 13 (the second game after the All-Star Break).

The Cubs have to operate under the assumption that the Cardinals are going to remain this hot for the remainder of the season, much like the Brewers did last September. In the meantime, Joe Maddon and Co. have to focus on their own business and not "play with the scoreboard," as Javy Baez says.

There's also an element of control for the Cubs in this divisional race - with seven games remaining against the first-place Cardinals, both teams have a chance to control their own destiny. Win five or six of those games and you can make up games in the standings or build a lead in a hurry.

One thing working in the Cubs favor is the Cardinals' schedule. Thanks to a rainout Friday, they had to play a doubleheader Saturday against the Reds. They already had a doubleheader scheduled for Sunday, making four games in two days. St. Louis doesn't have another off-day until Sept. 9, so they'll have to play 11 games in nine days.

Even if the Cardinals are able to make it through that grind fine, how will it impact the team in the weeks that follow? The Cubs can speak firsthand about how a grueling September schedule can impact a division race.

Overall, the Cardinals don't have a very daunting slate in September, with six straight games against the lowly Pirates and Rockies plus another seven against NL West teams (Giants, Diamondbacks) who look to be falling out of the race. 

But the last couple weeks could be tough for St. Louis, as they host the Brewers (Sept. 13-15) and Nationals (Sept. 16-18) and hit the road for Chicago (Sept. 19-22) and Arizona (Sept. 23-25) before returning home to host the Cubs for the final three games of the 2019 regular season.

We will certainly see what the Cardinals - and Cubs - are made of during those final two weeks.

4. The offense

The 2019 Cubs are heavily reliant upon the home run for offensive output. In the year of the homer, that's not altogether odd. But the Chicago lineup has struggled to put up enough runs to win on days they're not putting the ball in the seats.

The final game of August proved that once again, as the Cubs were shut out 2-0 by the Brewers. Over the final week of August as the team went 4-2, they scored 23 of their 31 runs (74 percent) off the longball.

But Saturday's game was a bit of an outlier, as the Cubs actually had a solid approach all afternoon and just didn't get the results. Nine of their outs were line drives hit right at Milwaukee fielders and the Cubs only struck out seven times (including a couple on borderline calls) and did not spend much time chasing.

Put simply: They had the right approach and it just did not work out in their favor. That's baseball. It happens sometimes.

"I thought our guys did a pretty good job organizing their zones today," Maddon said. "I can't bang on the hitters. I thought we actually had a good offensive day. It doesn't show up - people think you're nuts when you score 0 runs."

The question is, will the Cubs maintain that approach on a consistent basis in September?

A lot of that will depend on Kris Bryant and Baez. With Nicholas Castellanos in the fold, Bryant and Baez have moved to the third and fifth spots in the Cubs order, respectively.

Over the final three weeks of August (20 games), the two Cubs stars have combined for just 15 RBI on 5 homers. Baez has a .590 OPS in that span while Bryant has posted a .764 OPS.

The Cubs need more out of both guys in the heart of the order. They can't just rely on Castellanos and expect he'll post an OPS north of 1.100 for the rest of the season.

"I really believe our guys are in a good place mentally right now," Maddon said. "I love the spirit before the game. It's good. I love it in the clubhouse, in the morning when you walk in. I have no issues. Our guys are going about their business properly. 

"[Saturday], we lost, but we've been on a nice little run. I just want us to maintain that same method and if we can keep working good at-bats and force them over the plate, I'll take it. I'll absolutely take it. A little bit unlucky today, but that happens."

5. Jon Lester and Cole Hamels

It looks like Yu Darvish is capable of continuing this run of success he's been on for the last couple months. Same with Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks, who have been rocks in the Cubs rotation for most of 2019. Adbert Alzolay will likely be up for much of September should any starter need a day off or the Cubs opt to go to a six-man rotation.

But what about Lester and Hamels? After a bout of struggles, they've each shown clear steps in the right direction lately - Hamels' start Saturday (2 runs in 6 innings) and Lester's outing Thursday in New York (1 run in 6 innings).

If that can continue, it would be a huge boost for the Cubs down the stretch. It's hard to imagine the Cubs overtaking the Cardinals if they're still not sure what they're going to get on a daily basis from 40 percent of their rotation - especially when that 40 percent is made up of guys who have the track record and big-game pedigree Lester and Hamels carry.

"That's what I'm trying to do - really get back to a way where I'm consistent and can be consistent with all my pitches and have the velocity behind them," Hamels said. "So just day after day, putting in the time and the effort and making sure that I can figure some things out and find any sort of flaw that I have and address and then just get the reps. 

"I think what everything really comes down to is getting the muscle memory and then from there, just having the confidence that while I'm out there, I'll be able to execute a pitch and have everything behind it that I'm capable of doing."

Bonus: Pedro Strop

The rest of the bullpen looks to be settling in, as Craig Kimbrel has been dominant since returning from the injured list and Steve Cishek and Brandon Kintzler have also looked sharp.

With the emergence of Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan over the last few months, that gives the Cubs five trustworthy relievers at the back end of their bullpen. David Phelps has also looked good in his 11 outings in a Cubs uniform (2.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) and when Derek Holland returns, he provides another option against left-handed hitters. 

So, yes, the Cubs could build a solid bullpen even without the guy that has been their best reliever for the last six-plus years. But imagine how valuable it would be if the team could get Strop back to the pitcher who posted a 2.61 ERA from 2014-18.

A team can never have too many quality relievers in September (and October).

How Cubs stack up, according to WAR, from 2015-19

How Cubs stack up, according to WAR, from 2015-19

The Cubs made the playoffs four times in five seasons under Joe Maddon, receiving contributions across the diamond from All-Stars and role players alike.

Some players, of course, had bigger impacts for Maddon's Cubs, even in smaller sample sizes. Jesse Chavez and Cole Hamels weren't Cubs for long, but the two 2018 trade deadline pickups helped the North Siders reach the postseason for a fourth straight year.

These are the top 25 players by WAR (wins above replacement) from the Maddon era, according to Baseball Reference.

Top 25 Cubs, according to WAR, from 2015-19

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

How Ian Happ promotes mental health and other things to know about Cubs outfielder

How Ian Happ promotes mental health and other things to know about Cubs outfielder

It's kind of hard to believe 2020 is only Ian Happ's fourth season in the big leagues. The 25-year-old burst onto the scene with 24 home runs in 2017, and since has been through trials and tribulations, getting demoted to the minor leagues in 2019.

Whenever the 2020 season kicks off, Happ is in line for the starting center field job. Until then, here's a few things to know about him.

1. Happ attended University of Cincinnati from 2012-15, where he studied finance. He was a star on the field (2015 American Athletic Conference Player of the Year) and an exemplary student in the classroom (3.68 GPA, 2015 Academic All-American).

2. Happ is an avid golfer and is a 2 handicap, according to Golf Digest. He competed in the Straight Down Fall Classic in San Luis Obispo, Calif., the last two Novembers.

3. Happ serves as an honorary ambassador for First Tee Greater Chicago, which strives to introduce the game of golf to young people. The organization raised $23,000 at a January fundraiser Happ participated in.

4. In 2019, Happ and artist Patrick Vale started “Through My Eyes” — a three-piece artwork series capturing Wrigley Field from different perspectives. Proceeds go to the Happ Family Charitable Fund, which promotes mental health and wellness.

Happ lost his father, Keith, to brain cancer in 2015.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.