Cubs

What we learned about the Cubs in the first half of 2019

What we learned about the Cubs in the first half of 2019

After Thursday's comeback win over the Braves, the Cubs were happy to pack up for Cincinnati and escape the homestand with just a 5-5 record.

It wasn't pretty for a team that came into the homestand winning nearly 70 percent of their games at Wrigley Field, but the .500 record on the longest homestand of the year at least underscores the fact they didn't lose any of the three series. 

Such is the state of the Cubs right now, at the exact midway point of the 2019 season. They sit at 44-37, a game up on the Milwaukee Brewers in the division and on pace for 88 wins. 

They'll also have to win at least two of the three games in Cincinnati this weekend to avoid their first losing record in a month since May of 2017. 

But hey, things could certainly be worse given how the Cubs have played for the last few weeks.

Here are 8 things we learned about this team through the first 81 games:

1. The Cubs let a golden opportunity pass them by

The Cubs looked to be among the game's elite teams for a while there towards the end of April and throughout most of May, but they've fallen on some rough times since. It's clear they have yet to get truly hot and put it all together as a team, but it's also fair to wonder if that will ever happen this year.

The National League is a juggernaut like everybody expected, with just about every team beating up on each other. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers have really separated themselves from the pack so far. 

The NL Central is also essentially as advertised, as every team is within striking distance, but none have impressive records. The Brewers and Cardinals have also been struggling lately — the Brewers have lost 7 of their last 10 — and yet the Cubs missed an opportunity to create some breathing room atop the division.

"A good week or a bad week, this division could flip really quick," Anthony Rizzo said. "So we gotta stay on top of our game."

The Cubs may not be running away with anything, but they still have the second-best run differential in the NL (+63) despite playing .500 ball for the last month. 

Inside the clubhouse, the Cubs genuinely believe their best days are still ahead.

"We actually can [get better]," Javy Baez said. "Thing aren't going to go our way all the time, but we've gotta do us. We don't need to worry about first place and second place. We'll look at that in September. We started pretty cold and we got warm and now we're kinda in between. We just gotta fight to get out of it."

Still, there are legitimate concerns surrounding this team that will need to be shored up over the next 81 games if they want to make another deep run into October.

But the pitching is trending in the right direction, with the addition of top prospect Adbert Alzolay helping to give the Cubs' aging rotation an extra day or two off of late. And the bullpen now looks quite a bit different with Craig Kimbrel into the mix.

"Listen, the problems that we've had are definitely fixable," Joe Maddon said. "[We need] to really nail down the offense with situational hitting getting better as the season's in progress. Guys that may have struggled to this point have great track records — they're gonna do well. I think the starting pitching's getting a little bit of a blow right now — which i think is necessary. And then the bullpen, you've got this added person that's really a huge difference-maker. 

"Of course I'd like to be in a better position. Of course we've left some chicken on the bone. No question."

2. Guess the Cubs offense isn't fixed after all?

That's probably too extreme — the Cubs' offensive issues over the last five weeks or so are nothing compared to the final two months of 2018. 

Kris Bryant may not be in the MVP running at the moment, but he's clearly healthy and his addition back into the lineup on a daily basis has been a gamechanger. Ditto for Willson Contreras' resurgence and Jason Heyward has also quietly been an offensive force for most of 2019.

But this lineup is still too feast or famine and they continue to be plagued by the same situational hitting woes that have been a point of contention the last few seasons.

"I think if we get more consistent offensively, we have a chance to separate [from the pack]," Maddon said. "If we don't, then it's gonna look like this for a while. We need to continue to pitch. ... Defensively, we just gotta play catch. But for the most part, I really think the run's in the offense. We just haven't been consistent on offense."

They rank 25th in Major League Baseball with a .245 average with runners in scoring position and even with an improvement in that area this month (.258 AVG), the offense still hasn't found a way to avoid their Jekyll and Hyde ways. 

This is still a very young lineup on the whole — with Daniel Descalso and Carlos Gonzalez the only position players older than 29 — and that youth and general inexperience shows at times, especially with situational hitting. 

But even though these guys are still on the younger side, they've all been seeing at least semi-regular playing time in the big leagues for the last four or five seasons. So at some point, the advanced plate approach has to get more consistent and that's something Maddon and his coaches have been stressing since Day 1 of spring training.

"We've been talking about it — passing the at-bat to the next guy," Baez said. "I think keeping the plan and coming the next day to do the same thing is really hard. That's the biggest thing."

3. The Cubs have a depth problem

On the same note, a big reason why the Cubs offense has struggled is because the role players have not stepped up the way the team anticipated — especially of late.

Gonzalez is hitting just .175 with a .606 OPS in 40 at-bats with the Cubs. Addison Russell has a .569 OPS since May, Descalso has just 8 hits since April 30 (hitting .108 in that span) and Albert Almora Jr. has a .460 OPS in June. Even David Bote has struggled lately after a hot start to the month.

The Big 3 (Bryant, Rizzo, Baez) has been fine and has really shifted into more of a Big 4 with Contreras. Kyle Schwarber is still searching for more consistency, but has generally been a solid contributor along with Heyward and Victor Caratini has proven he is a valuable backup catcher. 

But the Cubs clearly miss Ben Zobrist and all the position player depth that was touted before the season and over the last few years has suddenly evaporated. 

If they're really going to go on a run and get more consistent offensively, the Cubs are going to need the role players to step up and contribute more.

4. As Javy goes, so go the Cubs

This is definitely Baez's team now and that's both a good and bad thing. 

The Cubs could certainly feed off his fearless style of play, especially as they've been pressing lately.

But they also may be a bit too reliant on the All-Star shortstop and MVP candidate. 

In wins this year, Baez is slashing .331/.375/.708 (1.083 OPS). In losses, he's hitting just .229 with a .603 OPS. 

That's a much larger disparity than we see from guys like Rizzo (.928 OPS in wins vs. .902 OPS in losses) and Bryant (1.005 vs. 810). 

Those numbers solidify the claim that Baez is the team's most important player, but their success can't be tied that much to just one guy. 

5. Kimbrel is here and he isn't a savior, but he brings that extra *something*

Kimbrel was activated Thursday and made his presence known immediately, pumping 97 mph with his fastball and locking down the ninth inning in an important win for the Cubs.

He won't be helping the starting rotation directly and he certainly won't be hitting with runners in scoring position — or any other time — but he provides that extra boost that can put the team over the top.

Baez knows — the shortstop said he was inside the clubhouse in the bottom of the eighth Thursday afternoon looking at video, but as soon as the Cubs got to two outs in the home half of the inning, he ran back out to the dugout because he didn't want to miss Kimbrel's first introduction and entrance in the top of the ninth.

Other guys who weren't even playing were glued to their seats. 

"That gave me chills," Contreras said.

Even in a best-case scenario, Kimbrel might pitch 40 innings the rest of the way while the rest of the pitching staff will have to cover the other 689-plus innings. 

But there's a level of energy, confidence and swagger that comes with adding a future Hall of Fame closer to the mix.

"Oh yeah, there's definitely a little bit of kick to that," Maddon said. "The guys felt it — I was watching them watch him as he came into the game. ... It was great theater."

6. Regardless of who won/lost Quintana and Darvish deals, Cubs need them to figure it out

Forget about grading the Jose Quintana trade or Yu Darvish's free agent deal. Regardless of what Theo Epstein's front office gave up for Quintana or the money handed to Darvish, we're at the point in the season now where all that matters is these guys are in the rotation and they're not going anywhere. In order for the Cubs to get where they want to go this fall, they're going to need the veteran pitchers to step up.

Quintana got off to a good start and Darvish has shown signs lately that he might be close to turning a corner, but generally speaking, both guys have underperformed for the second straight year. 

Kyle Hendricks is getting healthy again and Cole Hamels and Jon Lester continue to tell PECOTA to shove it, but Alzolay will have an innings limit this year and it will be hard for the Cubs to create any separation or go on a run if they don't know what they're going to get out of 40 percent of their rotation.

7. Hamels keeps trucking along

Man, Hamels wasn't kidding when he said he felt rejuvenated in the trade to Chicago.

The 35-year-old southpaw heads into his start Friday with a 10-5 record, 2.67 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in a Cubs uniform, striking out 170 batters in 175 innings. 

Between the production and the professionalism/leadership he provides in the clubhouse, Hamels has been worth every bit of last summer's trade and the winter's $20 million option.

8. The Pitcher That Was Promised hath arrived

The prophecy is true — the Cubs actually DID have impact pitching prospects down in the minor leagues. 

Alzolay has come up and pitched well for the Cubs in two outings and may get another opportunity in the rotation while Hendricks continues to rehab from a shoulder injury.

Alzolay has not only provided the Cubs with a shot in the arm they badly needed on the pitching staff, but he represents the first true impact arm the Cubs have brought up from the minors. 

At some point, however, he will reach an innings limit this year and either be shut down or move to the bullpen to save his arm (he only threw 39.2 innings last year due to a lat injury). Half the season remains, but right now, it's easy to envision Alzolay and his 95 mph fastball pitching in some sort of important role down the stretch for the Cubs.

Either way, Alzolay certainly looks like he belongs here in the big leagues and is the early leader for the fifth starter spot in the 2020 rotation. 

Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

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USA Today

Two of the Cubs' best prospects made Keith Law's annual Top 100 list

For those who follow such things, Keith Law's yearly Top 100 prospect rankings is always a highly anticipated read. What would baseball twitter even do with their time if they couldn't spend it vocally disagreeing with subjective lists? Having a handful of Top 100 guys is always a shot in the arm for franchises that maybe aren't doing a whole lot of winning at the major league level; when you know you're not winning a World Series, the debuts of these prospects are high points of the summer. 

There wasn't a whole lot of Cubs' representation this season, which isn't a surprise by any means. Only guys two made Law's list: Brennen Davis at 55, and Brailyn Marquez at 80.  

Law claims Davis has the highest upside of any Cubs' prospect, but isn't necessarily close to a debut: 

Davis is lanky and has barely begun to fill out, so there’s likely to be more power to come, while he’s already shown he can manage at-bats and use the middle of the field to get himself on base. Despite his 6′4″ frame he already has a very balanced swing, and the Cubs will just have to tighten up some mechanical things since he’s got such long levers. A former shortstop, he’s adapted quickly to center field; he projects to stay there and add value with his range. 

He also loves Marquez's stuff – comparing it to Aroldis Chapman's – and says it's the reason why he's team's best pitching prospect since Dylan Cease. You can see the entire rankings, which go pretty in-depth, right here. 

Brandon Morrow sidelined with upper chest strain, no timetable for return

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USA TODAY

Brandon Morrow sidelined with upper chest strain, no timetable for return

Brandon Morrow’s comeback attempt has hit a bump in the road.

Morrow, the Cubs reliever and former closer, has what the club is calling a “mild right upper chest strain,” according to MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. Bastian added Morrow felt the strain in his last bullpen session and there is no clear timeline for his return.

The strain is the latest ailment to sideline the oft-injured Morrow, who hasn't pitched since July 2018 due to a series of arm troubles. The 35-year-old has undergone two elbow surgeries since then (November 2018, September 2019) before becoming a free agent this winter. He rejoined the Cubs on a minor-league deal.

Morrow entered camp optimistic the latest procedure did the trick to get his elbow healthy. The Cubs have been easing him into action — the right-hander is throwing one bullpen every four days. Morrow said earlier this month he’s experienced some aches and pains but attributed those to being part of the rehab process.

Morrow is listed as day-to-day, according to Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune. But considering his injury history — and the fact he was already unlikely to crack the Opening Day roster —  the Cubs will proceed with extreme caution. There's no need to expedite his return, mild strain or not.

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