Signs Of Improvement, Or Cause For Concern

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On this off day, both the Chicago Cubs and their fans have got to be enjoying themselves. Coming off their second series win of the season (against the best team in the National League no less), the Cubs are starting to show some signs of improvement. While the improvement is likely coming too late to make much difference in the grander scheme of things, improvement will make watching the rest of the season more bearable, because in an honest moment, the games this year have been painful, even the wins.

The improvement comes on the heels of both Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo looking like their old selves, which is far from what they appeared to be last year. The giant steps they have taken forward are noticeable, and have Cub fans seeing stars. Add in Welington Castillo rounding out to be a very serviceable starting catcher and power house Mike Olt, Cub fans have some every day players they can enjoy watching from day to day.

The starting rotation is doing their parts to get the Cubs wins. Jeff Samardzija is pitching better than anyone can remember; he is doing everything in his power to prove he is worth the ace type money he is asking for. Unfortunately, despite his low ERA, Samardzija is still without a win, but anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that you cannot judge a pitcher on such trivial things as wins and losses. Jason Hammel and Travis Wood are doing their parts as well, both pitching well to get the Cubs into the win column, making the front office look like geniuses bringing them in to the organization. Even Edwin Jackson has stepped his game up, throwing four quality starts in his last five games. He fell one out short of having five in his last six. Say what you will, but Jackson is looking like a very solid starter as of late. His last outing of seven shutout innings against the Brewers though will not do much to get the fans to forget his 2013 though. Even young Jake Arrieta is showing signs of being a good addition to the staff. While he is hit or miss, much like Jackson, he will fit in great as a number five pitcher in the Cubs rotation.

The bullpen of the Cubs has also taken giant steps forward and has become very serviceable as of late. Former Rule 5 Draft Pick Hector Rondon has taken over the Cubs closer role from Jose Veras who just recently returned from the disabled list, and had done a tremendous job. One of the power arms setting up for Rondon is Neil Ramirez who has a very live arm and looks like a real legitimate arm in the pen for 2014, and might even be transitioned into a starting pitcher next year. Alongside Ramirez, you have Brian Schlitter who is starting to look like another solid option at the backend of the bullpen filling in for the injured Pedro Strop. Once he returns, the Cubs have the potential to have numerous options in the bullpen who have truly nasty stuff that opposing teams will hate to see coming in at the end of games. The problem is, when Strop is eligible come off the disabled list on Thursday, the Cubs will have a tough decision to make.

If they intend to bring Strop back to the major leagues, they have to send another one back to the minors. Chances are that will be either Ramirez or Schlitter. Either that or they can designate Veras for assignment and just cut their losses. Or, they can send Justin Grimm (who I believe still has options left) down to the minors. One of those four pitchers will need to go if Strop is indeed coming back, as I believe he will be. Also, making matters worse, remember the Cubs bullpen is a man heavy and the bench a man short thanks to the team going through a stretch which had them playing 30 games with only one day off, at least they were supposed to before there were rainouts. The Cubs cannot play with a short bench for much longer, but I would hate to see Schlitter or Ramirez taken out of the bullpen now that they are performing so well; however they might not have much of a choice.

The problem with the Cubs though, is their inconsistent offense. The top of their batting order is okay, even though Emilio Bonifacio has come back down to earth after his incredibly hot start. He is still getting on base at a pace and hitting far better than anyone could have imagined when the Cubs signed him off of the scrap heap. That is a great way to start any game, though the Cubs are still struggling. Even though core members of the Cubs future Castro and Rizzo are playing well, and Castillo is developing nicely, the rest of the offense is rather worrisome. Sure, in his appeared lack of playing time (which has upset several fans) Olt is leading the club in home runs, and is third in RBI, but his sub par average adds to the inconsistency. While he has massive power that has Cub fans craving more at bats for him, he seems to be home run or bust. That will not go too far in helping the Cubs become more consistent.

If you add in the rest of the less than desirable offense, you can see why the Cubs struggle to score enough runs to win regularly. Nate Schierholtz and Darwin Barney have no business playing everyday. Both of them are doing more harm than good in terms of the Cubs putting out a competitive team on a consistent basis. Even Luis Valbuena should not be starting on a consistent basis, though I would gladly take him over Barney every day at second base. There is Junior Lake, who should probably be playing more than he is; especially compared to Schierholtz. Lake is playing far better than Schierholtz and will help the Cubs far more in terms of winning games this season. However, Schieholtz will continue to be trotted out as often as can be.

When you have two players carrying the team out of eight, you are going to have a hard time winning often. Castillo and Olt come through from time to time, but their lack of consistency hurts more than their production helps. I still want to see them in the lineup as often as possible so they can continue to develop, but lack of offensive consistency from both of these players also keeps the Cubs from winning. I do, however, have faith that both will turn into solid additions to the Cubs roster and become key contributors to a real contender.

The problem is, the faithful fans of the Cubs are going to have to live with the lineup as currently written out. Guys like Schierholtz and Barney will continue to be trotted out there in order to showcase them as much as possible. While with the way they are playing now they have next to none, but if they are to get any trade value at all, they must be played as much as possible. The Cubs should have traded Schierholtz last season when he actually looked good, before the trade deadline and before his return to normalcy. Now he appears unmovable unless he is somehow able to get on a long hot streak.

Help is also unlikely to be coming any time soon. Top prospect Javier Baez is struggling in the minors, Kris Bryant (despite his dominating play) is not close and Jorge Soler cannot seem to stay healthy long enough for the Cubs to get a real look at what he can do. Soler’s injury plagued career is depressing because he is not bound by the same arbitration rules as Bryant and Baez as he is already signed to a major league contract. He can be brought up to the Major League roster at any time without any detrimental monetary implications.

The Cubs have shown signs of promise this year, but have fallen short far more often than you would like. But the promise is there, and despite the record you can see (to steal a line from Hawk Harrelson) the will to win. They just need everything to click at the same time in order for that to happen. The Cubs are close, maddeningly close, but they are missing that one thing to bring the whole game together and get them that win.

Unfortunately, if they are unable to find that very soon, key parts to this roster will be moved before the trade deadline.

 

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