A strange thing happened to the Chicago Cubs’ dynasty in year two of their decade-long dominance: they began to look vulnerable. As the calendar creeps toward July and the Cubs remain neck-and-neck with the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, maybe it’s time to wonder if the defending champs are not the surefire threat to win the division in 2017.
Now, if I were a betting man (and sometimes I am), it would still put money down on the Cubs over the Brewers to take the division. However, when you actually stop to take a look at what is occurring on the north side of Chicago, there are far more questions and concerns than there are guarantees. They don’t have the look or feel of a team that is poised to run off 10 wins in 12 games and blow past the Brewers.
Less offensive talent
With basically half the season gone, Chicago ranks 15th in baseball in OPS (.748), 16th in wOBA (.320), and 16th in runs per game (4.67). In 2017, they were 3rd in OPS (.772), 3rd in wOBA (.333), and 3rd in scoring (4.99). The outfield has been the main culprit.
The biggest missing piece for this year’s Cubs’ lineup is Dexter Fowler. While he has had his struggles in St. Louis this season, he posted a .393 OBP (.840 OPS) in 2016. He was the catalyst and always on base for Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Fowler’s absence is one, but not the only reason, for the enormous decline in the outfield’s offense as a whole. A quick comparison of the Cubs’ outfield in 2016 vs. 2017:
- 2016: .348 wOBA (2nd) and .804 OPS (3rd)
- 2017: .317 wOBA (25th) and .733 OPS (25th)
Of course, the Babe Ruth of the 21st century was supposed to make up for any shortcomings in 2017. Instead, Kyle Scwarber has been so bad (.171/.295/.378), he was sent down to the minors. His production has been nearly as bad as Jason Heyward’s 2016, and Schwarber can’t play any defense. On top of that, Ben Zobrist played nearly 300 innings in the outfield last season, and he has been sub-par, even before the injury that currently has him shelved. The combination of Heyward, Schwarber, Albert Almora, and Jon Jay has not been a threat this year.
Zobrist’s struggles have also impacted the infield. Addison Russell hasn’t been able to step up thus far - his overall play has actually declined. Javy Baez has shown off some power, but his .298 OBP is a far cry from Zobrist’s career .357 OBP. Chicago’s number two prospect, Ian Happ, has really been the only upgrade this season. Happ owns a .915 OPS entering Monday, but can the Cubs rely on him alone to turn around the offense?
The effects of injuries and aging
Skills can quickly diminish as athletes get older. Injuries also impact ability, regardless of age. The players not only miss time on the field, but it often takes them longer to rebound to their peak physical condition and output. Chicago is seeing both this year.
Kyle Hendricks, last season’s ERA leader (2.13), hasn’t pitched since June 4. He’s been on the disabled list due to tendinitis in his pitching hand. Hendricks is expected to be out until after the All-Star break, and who knows how effective he’ll be coming off a hand ailment.
Meanwhile, cranky John Lackey is 38 years old and far from a benefit to the Cubs’ rotation. After posting a 3.35 ERA with a 1.057 WHIP last season, Lackey’s numbers have ballooned. He’s currently 5-8 with a 4.74 ERA, 1.305 WHIP, and is allowing 2.2 home runs per nine innings (HR/9). His worst HR/9 before this year was 1.4 in 2008.
Offensively, Zobrist is on the DL with a wrist injury. He played through it for a while, but now hasn’t seen action since June 12. As many know, a wrist injury is serious trouble for hitters. Don’t be surprised if Zobrist struggles all season, even when they think he’s healthy.
Russell, who was mentioned above for his offensive issues, also is having trouble with his throwing shoulder. He was taken out of the game on Sunday, and reports say Russell has had a recurring shoulder problem since last season. There isn’t a timetable for him, but the “sharp, pinching pain in the front of the shoulder” would appear to be something he’ll have to deal with until the offseason.
And finally, Heyward remains on the DL with a left hand laceration. He hasn’t played since June 18th and there is no mention of when he’ll be back. Although his bat hasn’t come around, Heyward’s defense is extremely valuable to the team. Plus, it means the Cubs need to keep filling spots in the outfield and rearranging the infield.
As an example, for Monday’s game, Bryant was in left field, Mark Zagunis was playing in right, and Jeimer Candelario got the start at third base.
Starting pitching regression
Lackey’s issues were noted above, but Hendricks (pre-injury) and Jake Arrieta have also fallen (hard) back to Earth. Even Jon Lester’s performance has dropped a bit, although his 2016 campaign was among the best in his career, so some regression from him was probably to be expected. Throw in Eddie Butler and Brett Anderson’s combined 15 starts and you quickly see the pedestrian look of the Cubs’ starting rotation.
In 2016, Cubs’ starters owned a 2.96 ERA and 1.07 WHIP to sport the best marks in baseball. The next best team (Washington) had a 3.60 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. Chicago’s rotation was easily the most effective in MLB in 2016. This year, they rank 11th in ERA (4.33) and 9th in WHIP (1.31) among starters. Milwaukee’s starters are 8th in ERA (4.12) and 12th in WHIP (1.33), for reference sake.
Lester, the runner-up in Cy Young voting last season, has still been a solid arm. However, his ERA is up to 3.83 (2.44 in 2016), while his WHIP sits at 1.246, up from 1.016 a year ago. Lester has another 16 starts or so left this season, but it appears he is slowing down. Nearly all his numbers are trending to be the worst in his career since 2013. Plus, he now has thrown more than 200 innings in five straight seasons. That wear and tear, not to mention the additional playoff games, definitely can have a major impact.
Arrieta began to show signs of trouble last season, though is overall numbers were still great (3.10 ERA, 1.084 WHIP). However, there was a reason GM Theo Epstein wasn’t proactive in trying to re-sign Arrieta to a new contract before he hits the open market after 2017. Many were predicting a downfall for Arrieta - and soon. This is his final year before free agency and Arrieta is not impressing with a 4.36 ERA and 8.9 hits per nine innings (H/9) - both the worst in his career since 2013.
Hendricks’ mastery with location and movement has been less effective in 2017. It’s plausible that the tendinitis he’s fighting now was the main reason he struggled to a 4.09 ERA to start the season - nearly two full runs higher than last year. Through 61.2 frames this season, Hendricks is giving up more home runs (1.3 HR/9) and more walks (3.1 BB/9), while getting fewer strikeouts (7.4 K/9).
On the back end, Chicago has not gotten what they hoped for out of Anderson and Butler. They’ve combined for a 5.21 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP. Anderson was allowing 13.9 H/9 (he’s on the DL), while both hurlers are walking a ridiculous amount of batters (4.9 BB/9). Lefty Mike Montgomery appears to have a shot at sticking in the rotation, but he is not going to be the “ace” that makes everything fine once again.
Winning streaks vs. losing streaks test
Last season, the Cubs bunched wins together at an amazing clip. On the flip side, they avoided the damage of extended losing streaks. That is what good teams find a way to do, and the 2016 Northsiders were terrific.
Through June 26, 2016:
- One eight-game win streak
- One six-game win streak
- One five-game win streak
- Two four-game win streaks
- Two three-game win streaks
All totaled, those win streaks last season amounted to 33 victories. When it came to losing multiple games in a row, it was a rarity.
- One four-game losing streak
- One three-game losing streak
So, in essence, the 2016 Cubs went 33-7 when tallying the wins and losses that came during streaks (three or more games). This season has been a different story. As an added bonus, let’s take what Chicago has done in 2017 and compare that to the Milwaukee Brewers.
As you can see, both clubs have been light on racking up multiple wins at once. However, the Cubs have been prone to a handful of longer skids. Milwaukee has been better at limiting such streaks. It’s not as though the Brewers have been leaps and bounds better in this area (21-11 via streaks), but Chicago hasn’t give an indication they can make a run either (21-18).
Race to the finish
Again, this isn’t to guarantee that the Cubs won’t win the NL Central in 2017. Instead, it’s to show that the defending champs are not some infallible force destined to take off on a magnificent run to finish 10 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers. This Cubs’ team has multiple flaws, potentially nagging injury concerns, and a feeling of susceptibility that didn’t exist in 2016.
The ace in the hole for Chicago is Epstein. He’s not one to sit on his hands, and if there is a deal to be made to improve his club, he will be on it. The Cubs still have the young talent and open pockets to swing any type of trade - most likely for a starting pitcher.
Could the Brewers suddenly become the 75-win team many thought? Sure. Is it possible that the division is decided by the start of September? Maybe.
As of right now, however, there are no signs of that being the case. How much fun would it be to see the Cubs at Miller Park September 21-24 with the division crown still in play?
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com