WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cubs are in first place, they own the best record in the National League at the All-Star break and remain as much a World Series contender as any team out there.
But things are never 100 percent rainbows and lollipops for a team with this high a profile.
No, instead of a simple thumbs up from fans and observers, a pat on the back and a “job well done,” there’s been quite a bit of focus on what’s not going well for the North Siders. Mostly, that’s meant starting pitching, as four of the team’s five Opening Day starters owns an ERA north of 3.90.
If all you’ve heard this season is “What’s wrong with Yu Darvish? What’s wrong with Jose Quintana? What’s wrong with Kyle Hendricks? What’s wrong with Tyler Chatwood?” you might think the Cubs are woefully underachieving. Instead, they’re 55-38, a first-half record not far off from what they owned at the break back in 2016, a season that ended in a curse-smashing World Series championship.
The lone Cubs starting pitcher at the All-Star Game, Jon Lester, isn’t happy with what he calls the “nitpicking” that’s come with the Cubs’ otherwise excellent start to the season.
“We’re kind of pulling at hairs,” he said before the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night. “We’re splitting hairs right now as far as things that we’re looking for negatively on our team. And that can kind of rub wrong in the clubhouse as far as guys looking around going, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing pretty good and we’re getting nitpicked right now.’
“I don’t like nitpicking. So I feel like we’ve been doing really well and just stay with the positives of everything that we’ve been playing really good baseball.”
Lester’s got a point, though at the same time it’s an understandable discussion topic: If the Cubs aren’t getting consistent results from four of their five starting pitchers, what kind of effect will that have in a playoff series? There’s a long way to go before things get to that point, but Cubs players made their own expectations known back in spring training: It’s World Series or bust for these North Siders.
Lester has been phenomenal, unquestionably worthy of his fifth All-Star selection. He posted a 2.98 ERA in 19 first-half starts. But the rest of the rotation wasn’t nearly as pretty. Hendricks finished his first half with a 3.92 ERA, Quintana with a 3.96 ERA, Chatwood with a 5.04 ERA and Darvish, who made only eight starts before going on a seemingly never-ending DL stint, with a 4.95 ERA. Mike Montgomery, who’s made nine starts, has a 3.91 ERA overall and a 3.20 ERA as a starter.
None of that’s exactly end-of-the-world bad, and there are plenty of pitching staffs across baseball that would probably make a trade for those numbers in a heartbeat. But is it the elite, best-rotation-in-baseball type stuff that so many projected for this team before the season started? Of course not. And Lester knows it. He, like team president Theo Epstein, just looks at that fact a little differently than the fans and observers who are so quick to push the panic button.
“Can we pitch better? Absolutely. As a collective unit, yeah we can. And that’s a positive,” Lester said. “I think guys are ready for runs. You kind of saw Kyle put together a couple starts there where he’s back to being Kyle. Q’s been throwing the ball pretty well for us.
“I think this break will do Chatwood a lot of good. This is a guy, he’s pounding his head against the wall, beginning of the season he wasn’t giving up any runs but everybody’s talking about walks. I look at the runs, I don’t care about the walks.
“We get these guys back to relaxing and being themselves, we’ll be fine. Our bullpen’s been great, our defense has been great. Offense is going to come and go, as we’ve seen in the game. As starters, we’ve got to keep our guys in the game the best we can, at the end of the day our bullpen and our defense is going to pick us up.”
The fretting will likely never end unless the Cubs have five starters throwing at an All-Star level, that's just the way things go. Something’s got to fill all that time on sports radio, after all, and for a team with postseason expectations, it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about how they might fare in the postseason, where those starting-pitching inconsistencies will most definitely come into play.
But Tuesday night, Cubs fans will see three players representing their club. Lester will be a happy observer with one of the best seats in the house, and Javy Baez and Willson Contreras will deservedly start among the best in the game. And they’ll have bragging rights over all their NL teammates because nitpicking or not, they’ve got the best record in the league.
The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.
"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.
That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.
"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."
The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.
And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?
"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.
"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."
It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.
That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again.
"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.
"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."