Nothing fans the flames of discontent quite like a 10-2 loss at a time when the Cubs haven’t been playing their best baseball. For those who do not regularly partake in the joys that accompany having an account on Twitter dot com, it may not be quite as apparent that the Cubs are in some serious trouble, if you ask some of the fatalists in the fan base.
While I know some stopped reading after those last comments and are currently lambasting me in the Facebook comments (because SOCIAL MEDIA!), allow me to make an attempt to make everybody happy. The Cubs are a flawed baseball team. They have issues that need to be addressed and if those issues are not addressed, they could be the things that end up keeping a very promising season from ending in a parade in early November. With that being said, those flaws are relative to the fact that there are some great strengths on this baseball team. And those strengths are what have led the Cubs to a 100 win pace and the top winning percentage in the game halfway through the season.
Since this piece is about the flaws on the baseball team, there are items that won’t be discussed. The Cubs are 10-12 in one run games. Those are pretty random and small, flukey stuff can change those outcomes. Sure, there are more “close games” in the playoffs, but nobody can learn to win those games when many times the outcome is decided by factors that the teams on the field have very little control over. Another thing that isn’t going to be covered in depth is the fact that the Cubs are 26-22 since starting 25-6. First of all, 25-6 was unsustainable and anyone who thought the opposite spends way too much time playing MLB: The Show on beginner level. Second, 26-22 spanned over a full season is an 88 win team. In most seasons, that’s a playoff team. And that record is skewed by 2 stretches where the team lost 8 out of 12 in pretty close proximity to each other.
In spite of a confluence of circumstances that the Cubs can’t control, such as injuries, the schedule, and the inexperience of the players who are replacing those who are injured, the Cubs are still in a great position. After Sunday’s game, the Cubs will have played 20 out of 26 games on the road with only two off-days during that span. And they’ll have played them, in large part, without a key bench bat in Tommy La Stella, a resurgent Jorge Soler, and their lead-off hitter, Dexter Fowler. And, in the worst case scenario, they will end the first half of their season with 51 wins (although it would be pretty shocking to see the Cubs lose both of the next two games with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester scheduled to start). They will close the first half of the season having played 45 road games, with at worst a .578 road winning percentage. And the second half of the season will bring a home heavy schedule. Things are pretty good. But as was alluded to before, the team is not without flaws.
The first, and most obvious flaw, is the bullpen. But again, flaws are relative. The Cubs bullpen is a weakness on the team, but it would be really hard to call it a bad bullpen. The Cubs are 10th in MLB in bullpen ERA. 8th in K/9 innings and K%. And tied for 6th in WHIP. The league average for allowing inherited runners to score is 31%. The Cubs allow 28%, which is 7th best in MLB. The bullpen is not bad. Objectively, it just isn’t. They do allow too many walks (10.2%, 25th), and the 23 home runs allowed may be functions of the league low 217.1 innings the bullpen has pitched and the pitcher friendly weather early in the season.
Every team thinks they need help in the bullpen, and the Cubs are no exception. Some of the needs are pretty obvious. A left-handed, high leverage reliever is probably near the top of Theo Epstein’s priority list. Travis Wood‘s results over the last month or so have been outstanding, but they mask some things that make regression more than likely. He is allowing a .176 BABIP, which would be far and away the best mark of his career. And it doesn’t mesh well with his 37.5% hard hit rate. His xFIP is a 5.08 and his Skill Interactive ERA is 4.52, which are out of whack with the very strong 2.23 ERA. His strike outs are down to 19.7% and his walk rate is up to 10.2%. He hasn’t allowed an inherited runner to score as of yet, which is actually remarkable considering the other numbers. Regression is a matter of time for Wood. He is starting to regain some of the uptick in velocity that he showed after being moved to the bullpen last season, which may help curb some of the regression that should be expected. Travis Wood may be a good piece, but he isn’t a high leverage late inning reliever, which is why names like Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Sean Doolittle have been thrown around so liberally as options moving forward. Miller is not an option if the price is Kyle Schwarber, which Theo Epstein has made perfectly clear. And that should be the case. There is no reason to part with such a promising young player who is under team control for 5 seasons for a relief pitcher. Doolittle just went on the disabled list. That leaves Chapman, if the Yankees are even willing to move him, or other relief options on non-contending teams.
What is important to note here is that the front office has been transparent in their desire to obtain bullpen arms. Every contending team in the game is going to push to add arms to the pen. Last season, the Cubs worked hard up until the waiver deadline at the end of August to continue to improve the roster. This season, the roster has fewer needs, so they probably will not have the same sense of urgency in August that they had last year, after they took off and ran away with the second Wild Card. If there is anything we know about this front office, though, it is that it will be aggressive to make the team as complete as possible heading into the postseason. Expect one, if not two, high leverage relievers to be added to an already pretty decent bullpen.
It’s not really worth the time or the effort to re litigate the issue of Jason Hammel. And the notion that the Cubs need another starter to possibly replace him has very little to do with the fact that he has allowed 16 earned runs in his last 16.2 innings pitched. In general, it is very difficult to convince people that a team with two legitimate ace caliber starting pitchers and a league best 2.70 ERA have a flaw in their starting staff. It is especially difficult when, on the surface, the numbers look so good. Even after giving up 10 runs last night, Jason Hammel has a very respectable 3.45 ERA. The issue is that sometimes things are less good than they appear. And although Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are as strong a 1-2 punch as there is, and John Lackey has been a very solid, steady addition to the middle of the rotation, there is still room for growth.
Kyle Hendricks is the other suspect spot in the rotation. And his place isn’t suspect because of the results or the performance. Both have been very good for a back of the rotation starting pitcher. The only bothersome things about Hendricks are his home/road splits and his difficulty pitching deeper into games. Both of these are bothersome for one reason…in the playoffs, if he’s the 4th starter, he will likely be starting on the road. Don’t misunderstand the point, either. He hasn’t been bad on the road, as his .222/.311/.391 slash line allowed and 3.63 ERA would illustrate. Again, for a back end starter, that’s strong. But at home, he’s been dominant, allowing a .195/.239/.267 slash line and a 1.93 ERA. That’s ace caliber good production at home. And as good as he has been at home and overall, he is limited by his inability to pitch deep into games. He’s finished 5 innings in every start thus far, but he has not finished 6 innings in 7 of his 15 starts, and has only completed 7 twice. He has only completed 6 innings on the road twice in 8 starts. None of this is to knock Kyle Hendricks. He is limited by not having great stuff. As he tires, the command and control he so heavily relies on suffers, and it shows in his numbers when he goes through the order a third time, allowing a .285/.338/.417 and a .346 BABIP over his big league career.
Adding another starting pitcher would give Joe Maddon a maximum amount of flexibility with his starting rotation as the season progresses. It may push Kyle Hendricks out of the rotation when the playoffs roll around, or allow Maddon to start him in a game at home, as opposed to being hamstrung to starting him on the road, where he is less effective. Adding a starter also helps Maddon avoid having to run one of his aces out on short rest to the greatest extent possible. Again, adding a starting pitcher is easier said than done. Teams looking to sell are fewer than ever before with the second Wild Card and the American League having 8 teams in the Wild Card or within 4 games of it. With that said, there is no question that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are making the requisite phone calls necessary to ensure their team is as strong as possible heading into October, which almost certainly means asking about starting pitchers.
As the Cubs are currently built, they are plenty good enough to make the playoffs. They will almost certainly win the division and have home field advantage for at least one of the rounds of the NL Playoffs. And there is about half of the season left to be played. For all of the bad things that have happened to the Cubs over the last month, which has seen them go 16-13 since June 1, they still have the best winning percentage in baseball, an advantageous schedule moving forward, and they should be getting players back from injury. And the Cubs will make moves to improve the team on top of the players scheduled to return. Baseball is full of randomness and uncontrollable things. The things within their control, though, are things that have been and continue to be addressed. Yes. The Cubs have not won as often of late, but that should have been expected. Between a difficult portion of the schedule and some of the aforementioned randomness, nothing that has happened is really worth fretting over, even if it is legitimately frustrating to watch as it happens.
A month from now, after the non-waiver deadline, there will be more clarity as to what the roster is going to look like for the stretch run. Even then, it is unlikely that the roster will be a finished product. It is at that point that the real flaws and weaknesses should be dissected to their fullest because those will be the flaws the team has to probably live with as they head into the playoffs…where even a hypothetical, unicorn-like, perfect team could get bounced out with the randomness of a week of baseball.