Brandon Morrow

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."

'Pedro Strop Day' comes at a perfect time for the Cubs and their affable reliever

'Pedro Strop Day' comes at a perfect time for the Cubs and their affable reliever

"Pedro Strop Day" could not have come at a better time.

The Cubs' affable veteran reliever smiles and laughs every single day he's at the ballpark anyways, but he had plenty of reason for a bounce in his step Sunday morning after notching saves in back-to-back games.

Strop has been locking down the closer's role for the last couple weeks with Brandon Morrow on the shelf and shut down the Padres in the ninth inning both Friday and Saturday afternoon.

As they're about to embark on a quick three-day trip a few hours south to Kansas City, the Cubs thought it'd be the perfect time for a theme day. And not just any theme, but a "Dress Like Pedro Strop" trip, mimicking the flashy, loud wardrobe of the team's longest-tenured reliever.

This is the brainchild of Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who is a big fan of having his teams play dress-up on road trips, but has toned it down a bit this season.

"Of course nobody — NOBODY — could actually be Pedro Strop," Maddon said. "But we can all attempt to be.

"I've been after it for a while. I always thought it'd be great to have a Pedro Strop look-a-like road trip."

Maddon is bummed because he ordered an Egyptian snake necklace for the occasion, but it didn't arrive in time.

Still, the theme promises to deliver some laughs.

Strop was handing out gold chains and wacky hats at his locker for anybody that needed one. He was most excited to see Randy Bush all dressed up because he picked out the entire outfit for the Cubs front office executive.

Ben Zobrist entered the clubhouse Sunday morning with ripped jeans and a pair of bright-green shoes with wings — yes wings — coming out of the sides.

Strop knew it wouldn't be difficult to pick out his most "Pedro Strop" outfit from his closet, but he made sure to select something particularly "loud."

At the very least, this is a great, light-hearted tribute to the longest-tenured member of the Cubs bullpen, a guy fellow reliever Steve Cishek calls "a beast." 

This is the dude who celebrates walk-offs by high-stepping along with Kris Bryant down the third-base line:

Strop has been a model of consistency since he came over from the Baltimore Orioles in the trade with Jake Arrieta in the middle of the 2013 season, never posting an ERA over 2.91 or WHIP over 1.17 in a Cubs uniform. He's racked up 112 holds and 13 saves over those six seasons, including a career-high 7 saves this year. 

Maddon attributes a lot of that sustained success to Strop's sheer physical strength and ability to keep his arm healthy.

"He puts the ball on the ground and he has a wipeout slider that works against righties and lefties," Maddon said. "So I think the fact that he's been healthy and as strong as he is with really dominant stuff — he has the kind of stuff that can be closer stuff, but he's so valuable being able to move him around.

"If you look at his numbers over the last several years, he's probably as consistent as any reliever in baseball."

But Strop doesn't only want his impact on the team to be felt on the days he pitches.

He looks at himself as an ambassador of morale within the clubhouse.

"We have fun," he said. "That's part of the game. I don't want to go home 10 years from now and when my kids ask me, 'Hey Papi, did you have fun when you played?' I want to say yes.

"I try to put my teammates in the same mood every time. Sometimes you're in a bad mood, but I make sure they're in a good mood by the time they go and pitch."

When asked about how he has his own personal road trip theme in tribute of his style and personality, Strop couldn't do much by smile ear-to-ear and shrug.

"It's just me," he said. "They accept me the way I am and I love the way they accept me."

Cubs closer Brandon Morrow inches closer to return

Cubs closer Brandon Morrow inches closer to return

It was no towel drill, but Brandon Morrow took a step in the right direction Thursday at Wrigley Field.

Cubs fans — especially in this generation — are no stranger to gradual rehabs from pitchers wearing the blue and white.

Morrow threw from flat ground Thursday, tossing roughly 30 "pitches" from about 60 feet away. It was the first time the Cubs closer had picked up a baseball since before the All-Star Break, nearly three weeks ago.

The 34-year-old righty has had a long history of arm problems in his career and the latest — this biceps issue — isn't severe, but he and the Cubs see no reason to be impatient.

"It felt good," Morrow said. "I wasn't pushing anything. It wasn't the start of any sort of throwing program. Just test it out. Felt good."

There is no plan or timetable set in stone for Morrow. If he still feels good Friday — which he anticiptes — he'll play catch again and go from there in terms of building up strength and stamina.

The Cubs have handled Morrow with care all season, hesitant to use him too much and always willing to give him a breather. He also spent time on the disabled list earlier this summer when he tweaked his back taking off his pants.

He's only appeared in 35 games this season, accounting for 30.2 innings. He pitched in 45 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, but before that, hadn't made even 20 appearances in a campaign since 2012.

Morrow is the anchor of the Cubs bullpen with 22 saves in 24 chances, a 1.47 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. But the Cubs began Thursday in first place with the best record in the National League and the rest of the bullpen is healthy at the moment, so now is as good a time as any to let Morrow work his way as close to 100 percent as possible.

Plus, with new trade acquisitions Brandon Kintzler and Jesse Chavez in place, the Cubs bullpen has enough for right now.

Morrow admitted the Cubs' bullpen depth is helping reduce the pressure for him to try to get back on the field before he's completely ready. 

Where they'll really want Morrow is in late September and October, and that's the long game he and the Cubs are playing right now.

"I'm just trying to make sure everything feels good," Morrow said. "You don't want to come back where you need a day off every other day. You don't want to come back where after 5 appearances, you feel like you're gonna be feeling not good again.

"You want to make sure it's gonna be good throughout the rest of the season and deep into the playoffs. That's kinda the main thing — making sure it's gonna be good for the foreseeable future, not just getting back out there as soon as you can."

For now, there should be no true concern on Morrow and it should stay that way unless the season moves into mid-September and he's still not back. 

All that's happening right now is the Cubs are presumably saving some bullets in his right arm for the more high-leverage time in the season.

Assuming, that is, he's able to avoid any other arm or pants-related injury late in the regular season or in the postseason.

So that's kind of a silver lining, right?

"You just make one up. There's no silver lining to being on the DL," Morrow said. "That's all you can say, as far as positivity. Like, oh, hey, be a little bit more rested and you can come back feeling good down the road."