Cubs

Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano are on this year's Hall of Fame ballot

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AP

Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano are on this year's Hall of Fame ballot

Two of the Cubs' greatest starting pitchers are among the 33 names on this year's Hall of Fame ballot.

Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano, both longtime fixtures in the North Side starting rotation, landed on the ballot for the first time. Legendary Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa is on the ballot for the sixth year.

Wood accomplished one of baseball's all-time most impressive feats, striking out 20 Houston Astros on May 6, 1998, in just his fifth start in the big leagues. He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1998 and was a two-time All Star in his 12 seasons with the Cubs.

Wood was a member of that stellar starting rotation in 2003, helping the Cubs to their first-ever NL Central title with a 3.20 ERA and a baseball-leading 266 strikeouts in 32 starts. Injuries, however, plagued Wood throughout his career with the Cubs, and after making those 32 starts in 2003 and 22 more in 2004, he started just 14 games for the remainder of his career.

Still, Wood is one of the most recognizable and celebrated pitchers in franchise history, No. 3 on the team's all-time strikeout list. Only 13 pitchers have appeared in more games with the Cubs than Wood.

Zambrano was also a part of that 2003 team in his third season in the majors. He spent all but one season of his 12-season big league career with the Cubs, making 282 starts and three All-Star teams. He finished in the top five in NL Cy Young voting three times: in 2004, 2006 and 2007. The 2004 campaign was Zambrano's finest, as he posted a 2.75 ERA in 31 starts for a Cubs team that nearly made a repeat trip to the postseason.

Zambrano had a famously hot temper and earned as many cheers for his on-field antics as he did for his pitching prowess. While some of those memorable blow-ups might resonate with fans a little more in the long run, he's one of the franchise's greatest pitchers ever, No. 2 on the team's all-time strikeout list, behind only Fergie Jenkins, and No. 15 on the wins list. Only seven pitchers have started more games in a Cubs uniform than Zambrano.

Statistically, Sosa seems like a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame, No. 9 on baseball's all-time home runs list with 609 dingers and the only player ever to have three 60-homer seasons. But it has been difficult for him to get votes from the writers. He received just 8.6 percent of votes last season. To be elected to the Hall of Fame, a player needs to appear on 75 percent of ballots.

Two other ex-Cubs, Fred McGriff and Jamie Moyer, are also on this year's ballot.

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

State of the Cubs: What is the identity of this 2018 team?

Who are the 2018 Cubs?

It's mid-August, there's only seven weeks of regular season action left before the playoffs and yet the Cubs still don't have an identity they can hang their hats on.

Maybe they are just a team with an underachieving rotation, an inconsistent offense, a bullpen that is fantastic when rested and an elite defense.
 
Yet they maintain there's more in the tank and with a roster this talented and track records this extensive, it's easy to believe them. 

But when will that show up on a regular basis?

Mind you, the Cubs aren't complaining where they're at.

They woke up Monday morning with the best record in the National League by three games and the peace that no matter what happens in a two-game series with the Brewers this week at Wrigley Field, they'll head to Pittsburgh Thursday at least a game up in the division.

Of course, where would the Cubs be right now without David Bote's ninth-inning heroics Sunday night or against the Diamondbacks two weeks ago? Fortunately for the Cubs, that's an alternate universe they don't have to think about.

They'll take this current position, of course. Especially with the two biggest free agent additions of the offseason — Brandon Morrow and Yu Darvish — combining to throw just 70.2 innings to date plus a balky shoulder that has put Kris Bryant on the shelf for nearly two months (assuming he returns late August or early September) and has sapped the power of the 2016 NL MVP even when he has been healthy enough to suit up. And don't forget Carl Edwards Jr. — the team's second-most important reliever — also missed time (nearly five weeks) and has appeared in just 39 games.

"I don't take anything for granted," Joe Maddon said. "The Cardinals are playing a whole lot better, the Pirates have done a nice job, Milwaukee's not going away. I get all that. But at the end of the day — and this has been my mantra forever — worry about the Cubs. Worry about you guys.

"We just gotta play our game and if we do that, that stuff becomes secondary at every stop, whether it's Milwaukee, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Cubs do what they're supposed to do, that other stuff becomes moot. 

"That's about getting the rotation back where we think they can be. That's about getting our offense percolating on all cylinders again while we continue to play this defense. If we could somehow get KB, Darvish and Morrow back for that stretch run, my god, you can't get better acquisitions at the end of the year.

"That's all a possibility, but I don't count on it. I'm not waiting for that day to happen. In the meantime, you work with what you got and try to make that as best you can."

What Maddon has is a team that is 13-11 with a -21 run differential since the All-Star Break — obviously not the stuff of a championship team across nearly a month's worth of a sample size.

Digging deeper, however, and you see that the Cubs have been on the wrong end of several blowouts including the 18-5 loss to the Cardinals July 20 and the 9-0 defeat at the hands of the Royals last week. Of the Cubs' 13 second-half wins, 9 have come by three runs or less, including 6 one-run victories.

But the concerns are there, particularly with making sure the rotation helps pick up the slack down the stretch and reduce the stress on an already-taxed bullpen.

Cubs pitchers have combined to throw just 44 pitches and get 7 outs after the seventh inning all season — all of which can be credited to Kyle Hendricks. Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Mike Montgomery and now Cole Hamels have yet to throw a pitch in the eighth inning this year (though, obviously, Hamels has been fantastic in a small sample size and Montgomery saved the rotation when Darvish went down months ago).

Once the Cubs signed Darvish in February, there were many pundits across the game that believed this could be the top starting staff in baseball behind only the Houston Astros.

"Remember I thought in spring training, this had a chance to be THE best rotation we've had here," Maddon said. "We've had some pretty good ones. And it just hasn't gotten to that point yet, but I still believe that it can, in spite of the fact that we haven't gotten the normal innings out of them."

The rotation is underperforming, but this has been by far the deepest stable of relief pitchers Maddon has had to work with in Chicago.

"You gotta give these bullpen guys a ton of credit and the depth that is organization has built," Maddon said. "The guys that have come up for cameos have contributed greatly to this moment.

"I've often talked about the bullpen — you gotta have that to win a championship and these guys are demonstrating that right now. And part of that is to not beat 'em up."

The Cubs still rank atop the National League in many offensive categories — including runs scored, OPS and on-base percentage — but anybody who's watched this team all year knows they are prone to rather extreme highs and lows.

Since the All-Star Break, it's mostly been at a low, contributing to that suboptimal run differential.

"Offensively, I don't see some of our guys at their normal levels," Maddon said. "I know we got this wonderful run differential [on the season] and we lead the league in runs scored, but how do you maintain that? That's my biggest concern."

Beyond Javy Baez's MVP campaign and the resurgence of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, the only thing that has been working offensively of late is Anthony Rizzo in the leadoff spot.

Maddon tossed the face of the franchise atop the order a month ago and hasn't moved him out — for good reason. In 27 starts at leadoff, Rizzo is slashing .347/.446/.604, good for a 1.050 OPS. 

The rest of the lineup behind him has gone through its ups and downs lately, but that's also the nature of the game, especially in this day and age with strikeouts up and basehits down.

For perspective, a Phillies team that has been challenging for the NL East all season has experienced similar head-scratching offensive games on a regular basis:

A lot can change in Major League Baseball in the span of a few weeks.

Just a few weeks ago, who considered Bote to be big part of this team in 2018 or beyond? When the Cubs traded for Hamels, they were hoping he could give them solid innings. Did anybody predict this level of success from the 34-year-old southpaw so soon?

With seven weeks left until postseason baseball, rest assured — there are still plenty of ups and downs coming for the Cubs.

Outsiders — fans and media — often seesaw with those ebbs and flows for many reasons, but the best one is this: It's simply no fun if you don't allow yourself to get completely caught up with moments like Bote's ultimate grand slam or Hamels' Rejuvenation Tour that has only lasted three starts.

But even if those outsiders are willing to ride that roller coaster even a little bit, the Cubs certainly won't inside the clubhouse.

"Never a good time to ride the roller coaster," Rizzo said. "I get motion sickness anyways."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bote-mania has not only taken over Chicago but he’s helped save the Cubs’ season

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Bote-mania has not only taken over Chicago but he’s helped save the Cubs’ season

Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Matt Buckman and Jon Graff break down a wild weekend set against the Nationals.

They discuss David Bote becoming a household name, Cole Hamels continuing the stellar start to his Cubs career, and Kris Bryant finally feeling pain free. Plus, once the 2016 MVP returns to the lineup, what does that mean for Bote’s playing time?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.