PITTSBURGH — The Cubs just got swept by the last-place, 91-loss Pirates and haven't "flown the W" since Sept. 16.
Thursday marked the very first game in the Joe Maddon era that had zero playoff implications for the Cubs. It was also the first such experience for Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Albert Almora Jr. in the big leagues.
So it's understandable if Cubs fans aren't feeling too "glass half full" right about now.
But things haven't been all bad during September. Zooming out and looking big picture, there are some clear positives to take away from what was otherwise a disastrous month for the Cubs.
Darvish's season is done, with the Cubs announcing Thursday they're shutting down the 33-year-old right-hander. He finishes 6-8 with a 3.98 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 229 strikeouts on the year — an enormous bounceback season in his second season in Chicago.
After accounting for just 40 innings across 8 starts in his first year of a $126 million contract, he pitched 178.2 innings in 31 starts this season.
Darvish will go down as one of the Cubs' MVPs of the season with a huge second half that included a 2.39 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in September with 46 strikeouts against only 4 walks. That's especially impressive considering he began the month with a forearm issue.
All the "new year, new Yu" talk about Darvish in spring training came to fruition and he will head into the offseason and 2020 on a high note. That's huge for a team that will be facing some big decisions on the pitching staff.
Once a wrist injury cost him two months of the season, nobody expected the Cubs' top prospect up in the big leagues in 2019. But injuries to Javy Baez and Russell prompted the promotion and the rookie has impressed in a huge way.
Hoerner has hit .288 with a .789 OPS and his elite contact skills have transferred from the minors to the big leagues. It sure looks like he's going to play a big part on the 2020 roster — potentially even on Opening Day.
"You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico," Maddon said. "And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball. He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that."
Hoerner has had some hiccups at shortstop in the big leagues, but he has also shown he can clearly be valuable insurance to Javy Baez there next season. He played a lot of second base and center field in the minors and Maddon said he will roll Hoerner out in those roles over the final series in St. Louis.
Mix that all with his composure, competitive nature and team-focused mindset and it looks like the Cubs have found a core piece of the team moving forward.
Future pitching options
The 2020 bullpen is emerging as one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding the Cubs this winter and the Wi(e)cks are a big reason why.
Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck each pitched 9.2 innings in September and in those outings combined for 26 strikeouts while allowing just 6 hits and 3 earned runs.
Wick had already emerged as a high-leverage reliever earlier in the season, but with injuries to Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler, he ascended as Maddon's most trusted bullpen arm in the season's final month. Wieck quickly earned high-leverage opportunities, as well, and not only as a situational lefty.
Both guys figure to play key roles for the 2020 team.
Beyond that, Alec Mills also impressed in his 4 appearances (0.84 ERA) this month, including a spot start last week against the Cardinals where he tossed 4.2 shutout innings. He will start against St. Louis again Friday and enters the winter in the swingman mix on next season's pitching staff.
Tyler Chatwood is firmly in that swingman mix, if not the frontrunner for the Cubs' fifth starter spot. Including a spot start and six relief appearances in September, Chatwood posted a 1.38 ERA in September to go along with a 0.85 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. That lowers his season ERA to 3.76 in his resurgent campaign.
Chatwood has been dealing with a mild shoulder injury, so the Cubs don't know yet if he will pitch again this season.
On more of a personal level, the Cubs also had the opportunity to give Danny Hultzen his first MLB experience and potentially send Pedro Strop out on a good note.
Hultzen, 29, was the second overall pick back in 2011 and faced a tough road to the big leagues after a variety of injuries. His six games haven't been perfect (4 hits allowed, 2 walks, 1 hit-batter and he also committed an error), but he has yet to give up a run and has 5 strikeouts in 3.1 innings since his debut on Sept. 8.
If this is the end of the line for the 34-year-old Strop in a Cubs uniform, he'll go down as one of the best relievers in franchise history. He's a free agent after this season and his 2019 was marred by injury and struggles on the mound (4.99 ERA). But he has a 1.29 ERA in September and he was — fittingly — the last Cub to throw at pitch at Wrigley this season.
This month's injuries will be near the top of reasons why this 2019 season won't end in any playoffs for the Cubs. But the good news is none of the injuries figure to impact the players for 2020 or beyond.
Kimbrel's elbow inflammation was minor and he was at least hitting 96 and 97 mph on the gun during his difficult return to the mound against the Cardinals last weekend.
Anthony Rizzo's nasty-looking sprained ankle somehow healed enough in three days to allow him to heroically suit up against the Cardinals, but now that the Cubs are officially eliminated, they won't risk any further injury by playing him. The same goes for Bryant, who felt very fortunate he didn't suffer a bad knee injury or anything else when he slipped on first base Sunday at Wrigley Field.
Baez's fractured thumb did not require surgery and he's been able to pinch-hit once and run the bases a few times over the last week, even if he hasn't been well enough to play the field.
It feels like so long ago, but this month actually began with the return of Ben Zobrist to the active roster after four months tending to his family situation.
It was clear the Cubs missed him both as a player and as a person and the fans were ecstatic to have their 2016 World Series MVP back. As far as production on the field, the 38-year-old Zobrist looked like he hadn't missed any time, hitting .295 with a .377 on-base percentage and .787 OPS.
With his contract up after this season, it was good to see him get back on the field and have an opportunity to potentially end his career in Chicago on a high note instead of on personal leave.
Schwarber keeps mashing
Schwarber continues to rake in the second half of the season and enters the weekend series with a .341 batting average and 1.086 OPS in 94 September plate appearances. He also leads the team in RBI for the month (18) and looks to have taken a step forward as an overall run producer since the All-Star Break.
After getting the day off Thursday, Schwarber will rejoin the starting lineup in St. Louis and a huge series could net him 40 homers and 100 RBI for the season (he's currently at 37 and 91, respectively).
With the way he's finished the season, he's silenced a lot of doubters and looks to be key piece for this team in 2020 and beyond.