Tyler Chatwood

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

5 reasons for optimism surrounding Cubs in the second half

The Cubs enter the second half of play with the best record in the National League — only the fifth time they've accomplished that feat — and a 2.5-game lead in the division.

If that's not enough optimism for you, we've got you covered elsewhere.

The Cubs are obviously in a good spot for the final 69 games of the 2018 season.

Here are 5 other reasons for Cubs fans to be feelin' sexy as the second half gets underway:

1. The Brewers aren't getting Manny Machado.

The Cubs trailed Milwaukee by 5.5 games at the break last year and wound up tied for first less than two weeks into the second half. So this 2.5-game lead could evaporate in a hurry.

It's going to be a dogfight with the Brewers all season and the good news for the Cubs is Manny Machado — a rumored Brewers target — won't be joining the division after he was traded to the Dodgers officially Wednesday.

Which means the best player on the trade market will not be duking it out with the Cubs for the NL Central title for the last 2.5 months of the season.

Whether that means the Brewers go out and add to their pitching staff or not remains to be seen, but either way, it's not adding Machado to a lineup that already includes Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich, Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw.

2. Never forget the back of the baseball card.

Neither Kris Bryant nor Anthony Rizzo went into the All-Star Break feeling great about their overall body of work in 2018.

Yet somehow, the Cubs offense is the best in the National League in just about every category that matters.

Imagine how well this team is gonna be clicking when Bryzzo returns as the best hitting tandem on the Cubs.

Bryant actually got off to a fantastic start to the campaign, but since May 14, he's been a different hitter — .277/.352/.409 (.761 OPS), 3 HR, 21 RBI, 48 K in 37 games.

Rizzo got off to a dreadful start in March/April and though he's leveled out a bit since then, he's still hitting only .246 with a .748 OPS on the year.

The two sluggers are on pace for only 38 combined homers in 2018; they teamed up for 61 dingers last season.

They've also posted a combined OPS 230 points below where they were at last season — Rizzo (.748) is 151 points below his .899 OPS from last year while Bryant (.867) is 79 points below his .946 mark.

MLB players reference "the back of the baseball card" often because it happens to be a cliche that's true more often than not. Both Bryant and Rizzo are well-established stud hitters and chances are high they'll return to that form in the second half.

Mix that in with the development the Cubs' young lineup has shown (fewer strikeouts, using the whole field more, etc.) and Jason Heyward's re-emergence and you have yourself a formidable offense for the stretch run.

3. The Cubs are due for some good luck on the injury front.

"Yu" can never predict injuries with any sort of precision and it's safe to say the Cubs did not expect their first half to go as it did on the injury front.

Yu Darvish hasn't pitched since late May and has accounted for only 40 innings this season. 

Both Rizzo and Bryant had stints on the disabled list and have missed other time with ailments, as well. 

The Cubs were without their top relievers — Brandon Morrow and Carl Edwards Jr. — for 10 days at the same time and Edwards missed more than a month overall.

Throw in the Jason Heyward concussion DL stint, Brian Duensing hitting the shelf and a few other minor injuries and the Cubs have had their fair share of injuries already in 2018.

So the luck's gotta turn eventually, right?

That's what they're hoping, though much of that depends on Darvish, who still hasn't progressed much since receiving a cortisone shot in his elbow three weeks ago.

For a team with championship aspirations, the Cubs badly need Darvish to return to the mound and return to form. But if they're concerned about his stability in the rotation moving forward, there's still enough time to rectify that for 2018, with nearly two weeks left until the non-waiver trade deadline.

4. All-Star confidence

Players like Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber don't lack for confidence, that's for sure.

But there's something to be said for being voted to start for the National League in the All-Star Game or picked for the Home Run Derby. That's a confidence that can only be provided from the outside. 

All three of these young Cubs sluggers got that boost this week and can carry that over into the second half. Especially with the showing they put up — Baez leading off with a single, Contreras sending the first pitch he saw into the bleachers, Schwarber very nearly taking down the hometown favorite (Bryce Harper) in a thrilling Derby.

These guys had already proved they belonged in the spots granted to them and certainly were able to rise to the occasion.

Joe Maddon has talked about how he loves when young players get to go to the All-Star Game because of how it can impact a player's confidence moving forward. We could see that with this trio, even if Baez is already playing at an MVP level.

5. Rotation normalizing

This one's a double-edged sword. 

Jon Lester has obviously pitched at an All-Star level and carried the Cubs rotation through much of the first half. But despite a 2.58 ERA, he has a 4.34 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and a 4.59 xFIP (expected FIP), which would both be Lester's worst marks since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2008.

What does that mean? Lester has been a bit lucky so far and all that contact he's given up — his K/9 is at its lowest since '08 — may come back to haunt him at some point.

Which is fair. Lester has admitted he's a different pitcher now after all the wear and tear on his arm at age 34. He's focused on pitching to contact now and sometimes that can hurt you with some bad luck.

That being said, the rest of the rotation should be able to return to form.

Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Tyler Chatwood are all pitching below their career norms and working individually to get back to that level. 

And while Mike Montgomery has been a godsend to this rotation, getting Darvish back and pitching at the elite level he's capable of would do wonders for this team.

The Cubs need a whole lot more from their rotation in the second half and history indicates that "more" should be coming. Remember that whole "back of the baseball card" thing. 

Bonus: Reinforcements are coming.

If the rotation cannot return to form immediately coming out of the break (and Darvish still isn't showing signs of progress), the Cubs can bolster their starting staff with a move, as we already mentioned.

They could also add another member or two to the bullpen to help counteract the weight that's been placed on the shoulders of the Cubs' relievers to date and the weight that's surely coming in the postseason. 

The Cubs will make a move or two before Aug. 1 and that only figures to make this team stronger for the stretch run.

Cubs get good news on Yu Darvish, but know he still has a mental hurdle to clear

Cubs get good news on Yu Darvish, but know he still has a mental hurdle to clear

The Cubs received good news on Yu Darvish after beating the Twins 10-6 Friday evening at Wrigley Field.

After the Cubs left Los Angeles, Darvish flew to Dallas to meet with Dr. Keith Meister to get a second opinion on his injured arm. He was diagnosed with an elbow impingement and inflammation and received a cortisone shot. He won't be able to throw for 3-5 days, but after that, he will be re-evaluated and could start throwing again next week.

By the time he gets the all-clear and then builds up his conditioning and arm strength, there probably isn't any chance of seeing Darvish before the All-Star Break.

Whenever he is able to make his return to a big-league mound, the Cubs acknowledge there is a mental hurdle he will have to get past.

After signing a 6-year, $126 million deal over the winter, it would be an understatement to say things have not gone smoothly for the 31-year-old pitcher in Chicago.

Darvish looked great in his rehab stint in Class-A South Bend Monday night, but was apprehensive in his post-start press conference. Then he met up with the Cubs at Dodger Stadium and chatted with Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times about how difficult the last 8-9 months have been on him psychologically since he had two rough starts in the World Series for the Dodgers last fall.

Darvish then threw a bullpen in front of Cubs officials Thursday morning in L.A. and had to cut it short because he reported "pain" in his triceps, not just residual soreness or tightness.

As a result, the Cubs sent Darvish to meet with Dr. Meister, who is one of the team doctors for the Rangers and knows Darvish's history extensively dating back before the pitcher's 2015 Tommy John surgery.

Regardless of where he's at physically, the Cubs understand there's a psychological hurdle Darvish will have to get over at some point.

After all, 90 percent of this game is half mental, right?

"I can't speak for him, but for me, maybe you do press a little bit going to a new spot," said Tyler Chatwood, who also signed with the Cubs as a free agent starting pitcher over the winter. "You just want to impress them rather than being what you've always been and why they wanted you in the first place. So I think there's that element to it, but I can't speak for him."

Chris Gimenez — who is close friends with Darvish and has caught the pitcher dating back to 2014 — echoed Chatwood's comments about fitting in immediately with a new team in a new place in front of a new group of fans. The veteran catcher has been on six different MLB teams in his career, including four separate squads in the last four seasons.

"I think any player would say that," Gimenez said. "Everybody wants to come out and show their best at all times, no matter what the contract or whether you've been here years or haven't.

"...You definitely want to get off on your best foot. We gotta get him back healthy first and foremost so that he can go out there and show everybody what he can do."

Darvish has already been on the disabled list for 5 weeks for the triceps issue that first cropped up right before Memorial Day weekend. He was also on the disabled list in early May for the flu.

He hasn't pitched at Wrigley Field since May 2 and will cross the season's halfway mark with only 40 innings under his belt.

Between the big contract, the DL stints, the rough World Series starts and the outcry from fans, there is a lot of pressure on Darvish to go out there and perform.

"I really want to try to emilerate that concern in his mind," Joe Maddon said. "I just want him to go play and go pitch. We all know he's here under free agent status or whatever. But I just want him to go out and just play. Just be Yu Darvish and we'll take it from there.

"Make sure everything's healthy, support him and then go play. It's easier said than done, but I want him to be unencumbered when he goes out there and hopefully he'll feel that through our support. That's how I work with everybody here.

"It's easy to get caught in the trap of expectations. But, not a bad thing. Pressure's a good thing. It should bring out the best in Yu at some point. As we get to know Yu better, to really channel it in the proper direction, support him properly, have him understand that we're with him 100 percent and I believe you're gonna see the end result being a positive one."

Of course Darvish is frustrated. Of course the Cubs are frustrated. Of course Cubs fans are frustrated. 

But all the frustration in the world won't get Darvish back out on a big-league mound any sooner. 

"He definitely wants to be out there and helping his team," Maddon said. "Of course he does. I've had a lot of conversations with him. He really is a wonderful young man and we talk straight up. He is frustrated to be in this position right now.

"That's what I'm saying. It's easy to deingrate or point fingers or question, but I never question when somebody tells me they're injured and you have to support that. So we'll see what happens next. Get him back on the mound and take it from there.

"He can be such a boon to us, obviously. That's why we signed him in the first place. It's a long season, he's not obviously used up a whole lot of innings to this point. Hopefully he gets it right and then can be very strong for us in the second half and down the stretch."

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Pants, seat of the pants and sim games: The current state of Cubs pitching

Dominating.

That's how a smiling Theo Epstein described Yu Darvish's simulated game at Wrigley Field Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of the "Friendly Confines," the Cubs' clubhouse was getting used to the idea of closer Brandon Morrow on the disabled list.

Such is life for the current state of affairs for the Cubs pitching staff with their two biggest additions from the winter now on the shelf at the same time.

Darvish threw roughly 50 pitches in his sim game against hitters Ian Happ and Tommy La Stella. He worked in all his pitches and liked the way his fastball and slider felt, but needs to refine his curveball and splitter with more work.

"I feel good," Darvish said through a translator. "There was some anxiety beforehand, but I think it turned out to be better than I expected."

Darvish said the anxiety stemmed mostly from his past elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery in 2014.

"Definitly the elbow aspect," Darvish said. "The anxiety came from whether I could throw at 100 percent condition."

This is the second time Darvish has mentioned his past elbow injury is in the back of his mind as he's worked through the current triceps issue. He said the same thing last week in Milwaukee after his first bullpen session.

Remember, too, Darvish was concerned about the possibility of cramps in his arm in his Cubs debut in Miami in late March.

It appears as if he has some mental hurdles to work through with his history of elbow problems, but he hasn't reported pain in weeks now and the MRI showed no structural damage in late May.

The Cubs do not yet have a set plan for Darvish after this sim game and will evaluate how he feels Thursday. If the reports are all good, he could head out on a rehab assignment shortly.

Darvish said he would only need one rehab start before he'd be ready to rejoin the Cubs rotation.

Meanwhile, Morrow's back tightened up on him in the wee hours of Monday morning after the Cubs made the trip back from the night game in St. Louis. He hurt his back taking off his pants, he said, and was unavailable Monday and Tuesday before the Cubs put him on the disabled list Wednesday morning.

"It's just one of those freakish things," Maddon said. "People bend over and hurt their backs all the time."

The Cubs have been uber cautious with Morrow all year with his injury history and now that they're in the midst of a stretch of 14 games in 13 days thanks to Tuesday's doubleheader, can't afford to not have a fresh arm in the bullpen.

"We thought it would be wise to give him a couple days," Joe Maddon said. "It's like a back spasm, back tightness. We just can't go with one less pitcher right now coming off the doubleheader. 

"...It's for him, too. I don't want him to go out there and pitch coming off that right now. There's really no reason to rush it back. Prefer him getting 100 percent well, getting him back out there when it's right and then moving on from there."

In Morrow's absence, Maddon will play matchups with the closing options as he did in Game 1 Tuesday. Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson and Pedro Strop all have experience closing.

The Cubs also don't have an update yet on Carl Edwards Jr. as he works his way back from a shoulder injury. He's been throwing from flat ground and looking "outstanding," Maddon said, but the team doesn't have a finish line yet. Edwards would probably need a short rehab stint before returning, too.

Then there's Brian Duensing, who is currently on the bereavement list due to the passing of his grandfather. The Cubs expect to have their left-handed veteran back by Friday.

All told, the Cubs are without Morrow, Edwards, Duensing, Mike Montgomery (rotation) and Eddie Butler (DL - groin) from their Opening Day bullpen. Only Cishek, Strop and Wilson remain from the group.

In their stead are Luke Farrell, Justin Hancock, Randy Rosario, Rob Zastryzny and Anthony Bass — all 5 of which have been pretty successful during their time in Chicago.

As if there wasn't already enough complications with the Cubs pitching staff, here are three more:

—The weather in Cincinnati this weekend
—Tyler Chatwood's wife is about to have the couple's first child
—Monday's rain/light-out at Wrigley Field pushed Chatwood back a day, so he cannot start Saturday's game

Let's start with the weather. As of Wednesday afternoon, there was a 100 percent chance of rain all day in Cincinnati on Thursday, where the Cubs begin a four-game series. The forecast doesn't look much better for Friday, either.

Even if the Cubs are able to play every game as scheduled, who will start Saturday? It can't be any of the current rotation members given none would be on regular rest. 

Chatwood would be in line to start Sunday's series finale in Cincinnati, but that's only if his wife isn't given birth at the time.

So right now, the Cubs don't know who's going to start either game this weekend. They could call somebody up from the minor leagues or give the ball to Farrell, who is still stretched out enough to give them 4-5 innings or so.

"It's totally by ear," Maddon said. "This is absolutely seat of the pants. We have Farrell, of course. By not using Farrell [Thursday or Friday], he would be a consideration, no question. 

"But other than that, we got a baby on the way, we got all kinds of stuff going on, so we're just gonna have to play that by ear."

With the pitching shortage, it makes what Jon Lester (7 shutout innings Wednesday) and Mike Montgomery (6 innings in Game 2 Tuesday) even more important to the overall health of the unit, eating up innings at a desperate time.

The Cubs' next off-day won't come until July 2, barring any weather delays. So this stretch will be huge for how Maddon and the Cubs coaching staff/front office handles the pitching staff.

But hey, at least it's only June and not October.