Cubs

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

The Cubs enter the second half of play with the best record in the National League — only the fifth time they've accomplished that feat — and a 2.5-game lead in the division.

If that's not enough optimism for you, we've got you covered elsewhere.

The Cubs are obviously in a good spot for the final 69 games of the 2018 season.

Here are 5 other reasons for Cubs fans to be feelin' sexy as the second half gets underway:

1. The Brewers aren't getting Manny Machado.

The Cubs trailed Milwaukee by 5.5 games at the break last year and wound up tied for first less than two weeks into the second half. So this 2.5-game lead could evaporate in a hurry.

It's going to be a dogfight with the Brewers all season and the good news for the Cubs is Manny Machado — a rumored Brewers target — won't be joining the division after he was traded to the Dodgers officially Wednesday.

Which means the best player on the trade market will not be duking it out with the Cubs for the NL Central title for the last 2.5 months of the season.

Whether that means the Brewers go out and add to their pitching staff or not remains to be seen, but either way, it's not adding Machado to a lineup that already includes Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw.

2. Never forget the back of the baseball card.

Neither Kris Bryant nor Anthony Rizzo went into the All-Star Break feeling great about their overall body of work in 2018.

Yet somehow, the Cubs offense is the best in the National League in just about every category that matters.

Imagine how well this team is gonna be clicking when Bryzzo returns as the best hitting tandem on the Cubs.

Bryant actually got off to a fantastic start to the campaign, but since May 14, he's been a different hitter — .277/.352/.409 (.761 OPS), 3 HR, 21 RBI, 48 K in 37 games.

Rizzo got off to a dreadful start in March/April and though he's leveled out a bit since then, he's still hitting only .246 with a .748 OPS on the year.

The two sluggers are on pace for only 38 combined homers in 2018; they teamed up for 61 dingers last season.

They've also posted a combined OPS 230 points below where they were at last season — Rizzo (.748) is 151 points below his .899 OPS from last year while Bryant (.867) is 79 points below his .946 mark.

MLB players reference "the back of the baseball card" often because it happens to be a cliche that's true more often than not. Both Bryant and Rizzo are well-established stud hitters and chances are high they'll return to that form in the second half.

Mix that in with the development the Cubs' young lineup has shown (fewer strikeouts, using the whole field more, etc.) and Jason Heyward's re-emergence and you have yourself a formidable offense for the stretch run.

3. The Cubs are due for some good luck on the injury front.

"Yu" can never predict injuries with any sort of precision and it's safe to say the Cubs did not expect their first half to go as it did on the injury front.

Yu Darvish hasn't pitched since late May and has accounted for only 40 innings this season. 

Both Rizzo and Bryant had stints on the disabled list and have missed other time with ailments, as well. 

The Cubs were without their top relievers — Brandon Morrow and Carl Edwards Jr. — for 10 days at the same time and Edwards missed more than a month overall.

Throw in the Jason Heyward concussion DL stint, Brian Duensing hitting the shelf and a few other minor injuries and the Cubs have had their fair share of injuries already in 2018.

So the luck's gotta turn eventually, right?

That's what they're hoping, though much of that depends on Darvish, who still hasn't progressed much since receiving a cortisone shot in his elbow three weeks ago.

For a team with championship aspirations, the Cubs badly need Darvish to return to the mound and return to form. But if they're concerned about his stability in the rotation moving forward, there's still enough time to rectify that for 2018, with nearly two weeks left until the non-waiver trade deadline.

4. All-Star confidence

Players like Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber don't lack for confidence, that's for sure.

But there's something to be said for being voted to start for the National League in the All-Star Game or picked for the Home Run Derby. That's a confidence that can only be provided from the outside. 

All three of these young Cubs sluggers got that boost this week and can carry that over into the second half. Especially with the showing they put up — Baez leading off with a single, Contreras sending the first pitch he saw into the bleachers, Schwarber very nearly taking down the hometown favorite (Bryce Harper) in a thrilling Derby.

These guys had already proved they belonged in the spots granted to them and certainly were able to rise to the occasion.

Joe Maddon has talked about how he loves when young players get to go to the All-Star Game because of how it can impact a player's confidence moving forward. We could see that with this trio, even if Baez is already playing at an MVP level.

5. Rotation normalizing

This one's a double-edged sword. 

Jon Lester has obviously pitched at an All-Star level and carried the Cubs rotation through much of the first half. But despite a 2.58 ERA, he has a 4.34 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and a 4.59 xFIP (expected FIP), which would both be Lester's worst marks since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2008.

What does that mean? Lester has been a bit lucky so far and all that contact he's given up — his K/9 is at its lowest since '08 — may come back to haunt him at some point.

Which is fair. Lester has admitted he's a different pitcher now after all the wear and tear on his arm at age 34. He's focused on pitching to contact now and sometimes that can hurt you with some bad luck.

That being said, the rest of the rotation should be able to return to form.

Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are all pitching below their career norms and working individually to get back to that level. 

And while Mike Montgomery has been a godsend to this rotation, getting Darvish back and pitching at the elite level he's capable of would do wonders for this team.

The Cubs need a whole lot more from their rotation in the second half and history indicates that "more" should be coming. Remember that whole "back of the baseball card" thing. 

Bonus: Reinforcements are coming.

If the rotation cannot return to form immediately coming out of the break (and Darvish still isn't showing signs of progress), the Cubs can bolster their starting staff with a move, as we already mentioned.

They could also add another member or two to the bullpen to help counteract the weight that's been placed on the shoulders of the Cubs' relievers to date and the weight that's surely coming in the postseason. 

The Cubs will make a move or two before Aug. 1 and that only figures to make this team stronger for the stretch run.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Trash Talk and Trolling Tuesday edition

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AP

Cubs Talk Podcast: Trash Talk and Trolling Tuesday edition

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, we join Luke Stuckmeyer, David Kaplan and Kelly Crull to discuss the outcome of the Cubs convention and Cubs trolling.

01:30 - Has Kris Bryant calling St. Louis "boring" been blown out of proportion??

04:00 - Cardinals fans weigh in on Bryant's comments

09:00 - Are Bryant's comments worse than Joakim Noah calling out Cleveland?

11:30 - Joe Maddon made comments about the Cardinals ordering a hit on them after a couple hit batters

12:30 - Lee Elia's infamous rant about Cubs fans in the 1983 season

13:00 - What was their favorite sports rants

15:40 - Ozzie Guillen trolls the Cubs

17:30 - Marty Brennaman goes off on Cubs fans

19:20 - Everyone in the division seems to hate the Cubs

20:21 - Do you believe A.J. Pierzynski when he said he would never sign with the Cubs?

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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The Reds are putting the NL Central on notice

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USA TODAY

The Reds are putting the NL Central on notice

We're less than a month before spring training begins and as it stands right now, the National League Central is the only division in baseball where every team is truly "going for it."

Everybody knows the Cubs and Brewers are aiming to contend after playoff appearances last year and the Cardinals clearly are hoping to end their three-year October drought after acquiring Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller. The Pirates have been quiet this winter (as they are every offseason), but remember, they traded for Chris Archer and Keone Kela last July.

But the Reds? The Reds have low-key had the best offseason of any team in the division.

That's not to say Cincinnati will be contending for the division crown in 2019, but they've certainly addressed their biggest two weaknesses this winter — starting pitching and overall depth.

The Reds acquired Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig to bolster their lineup and outfield, but the work they've done to the rotation could be a real game-changer. 

Cincinnati acquired a trio of starting pitchers this winter in trades — Sonny Gray, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark. All three guys have varying levels of concerns based on past performance or health, but it's very clear they're all improvements over what the Reds had to work with as starters in 2018. Only five teams had a rotation with a worse ERA than the Reds last season (5.02).

Here's Cincinnati's 2018 Opening Day rotation:

Anthony DeSclafani
Homer Bailey
Brandon Finnegan
Luis Castillo
Sal Romano

Here's the 2019 projected rotation:

Sonny Gray
Alex Wood
Luis Castillo
Tanner Roark
Anthony DeSclafani

You don't have to be a baseball expert to know the latter rotation is a more desirable 1-through-5 and has the potential to be significantly better. 

Castillo has flashed top-of-the-rotation potential but has struggled with consistency. DeSclafani went 18-18 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.30 WHIP from 2015-16 before missing all of 2017 with an elbow injury and working his way back in only 21 starts last year.

Wood has barely topped 150 innings the last two seasons with the Dodgers, but he went 25-10 with a 3.20 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 8.5 K/9. Gray — the latest acquisition — has been an ace at various points in his career (2.88 ERA, 1.13 WHIP from 2013-15) despite a tough 2018. Roark was the most overlooked guy in the Nationals rotation the last few years and while he's certainly not a No. 1, he's 59-50 with a 3.61 ERA and 1.21 WHIP as a starting pitcher.

Who knows how the three new guys will perform in a hitter's environment like Great American Ballpark and in front of a new defense, but the improvement in talent and potential is undeniable. Plus, only Roark is over 30 and only he and Wood are free agents after 2019.

Everybody knows the Reds can swing it and Puig and Kemp are solid factors to supplement a lineup that already features one of the best hitters in the game (Joey Votto), two of the more underrated stars in baseball (Eugenio Suarez, Scooter Gennett) and an up-and-coming speedster (Jose Peraza). Plus, young outfielder Jesse Winker is proving more and more that he's making the most of his time learning from Votto, as the 25-year-old has a .299 average and .397 on-base percentage in 136 games over his big-league career.

The Reds also feature an underrated bullpen that is returning every major piece that contributed to a No. 16 ranking in MLB in reliever ERA last year. 

Oh yeah, and the Reds have the sixth-best farm system according to FanGraphs, so they have some impressive young talent coming up through the system that can either help augment the big-league club or be dangled as trade headliners.

Also consider this — from May 8-July 31 in 2018, here's how each team in the NL Central fared:

CHC: 44-29
MIL: 43-32
CIN: 40-32
PIT: 37-36
STL: 34-40

This was a stretch in time after the Reds made a managerial change and before the trade deadline. Sure, it's cherry-picking a point in the schedule, but this is nearly half a season's worth of recent data that shows the Reds can hang with the top of the division.

And they've very clearly improved this winter. That doesn't always translate to on-field wins, but the Reds can't win any games in December or January. All they can do is try to improve their roster and increase depth and they've certainly done that.

If nothing else, the Reds could loom as a serious spoiler down the stretch. They play the Cubs and Cardinals 7 times each from August to September and face off against the Brewers three times in the final two months.

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