Since the Cubs are currently seven games under .500 and in last place in the N.L. Central, you’ve probably already read articles about “the inevitable selloff” that note players the team could flip before this year’s trade deadline.
I’m here to tell you that not only do I not think that should happen, I don’t think it will happen.
First, though the Cubs are in last place in the division, they stand just five games out of first place Thursday morning. With 107 games remaining, that’s hardly an insurmountable deficit. All five teams in the N.L. Central are flawed in some way and this could be a division like the 2007 N.L. Central, where the Cubs began poorly, then went on a run and took the division title with 85 wins. This year’s team would have to go 61-46 to do that — certainly not impossible.
Beyond that, the Cubs spent a lot of money on free agents this past offseason. Did they put together a juggernaut team that’s a World Series favorite? No, no they did not. But they did make a statement that they did at least intend to compete, and with a weak division and an additional wild card team, it’s certainly not impossible.
Where are the areas the Cubs need to improve? Here are some.
Get some relief — please!
The Cubs have a strong starting rotation. Even with some recent glitches, Cubs starters have a 3.98 ERA, which ranks third in the N.L. and eighth overall. That’s good — especially compared to last year, when Cubs starters’ ERA ranked 17th in MLB.
Unfortunately, the bullpen has been awful. Cubs relievers have a 4.60 ERA, which ranks 27th in MLB — only the Royals, White Sox and A’s are worse. Only the A’s have fewer saves (four) than the Cubs’ seven, and the Cubs have six blown saves to go along with that. And over their last six games — four losses — Cubs relievers have a 5.97 ERA (19 earned runs in 28⅔ innings). That’s just not going to cut it.
Part of the problem here, I think, is that Cubs relievers have no defined roles. They tried Michael Fulmer at closer — yikes, that was bad. They tried Brad Boxberger — he got hurt. And just when Adbert Alzolay put together an electric two-inning save Tuesday, with the hint that maybe, finally, he’d be closing — he wound up pitching in a setup role Wednesday. So did Mark Leiter Jr., who had closed a couple of games. Relievers generally do better when they have specifically defined roles. This Cubs bullpen doesn’t have that.
Two weeks ago I suggested the Cubs trade for Aroldis Chapman. I still think that’s a reasonable idea. Chapman has vast closing experience, yes, his walk rate is up this year, but he’s still throwing 100 miles per hour:
The Cubs don’t have anyone doing that. They might, soon, when Codi Heuer returns. If they traded for Chapman and had Heuer, Alzolay and Leiter as the primary setup men — that’s a pretty good late-inning group.
The bench, charitably, has been awful
Nowhere did we see this more clearly than in Wednesday’s game, when the best pinch-hitter they could come up with during a ninth-inning rally was ... Edwin Rios. I am sorry, but for those of you who say “Rios has power!”, he has shown exactly none of that in his time with the Cubs, where he is 2-for-25 with 13 strikeouts. Yes, that is a small sample size, but... there has to be someone better. He hits lefthanded. So what? He isn’t hitting!
Then Rios did get on base via HBP and Patrick Wisdom reached on an error. That brought up Miles Mastrobuoni, who entered Wednesday’s game with a .479 OPS — that’s just horrific. He went 0-for-3, walked once, and in that plate appearance ran the count full and struck out.
Some of you noted that Nick Madrigal, with his contact skills, might have been a better player to have available at that time. That’s not wrong, though Madrigal had his struggles with the Cubs this year, the reason he was sent to Triple-A Iowa.
They’ve got to do better than that.
I’ve mentioned David Bote previously — he could hardly be worse. Sergio Alcántara is also at Iowa, and he’s currently hitting .284/.365/.455 there. Maybe it’s time for the Cubs to give Jake Slaughter a chance. This team has to do something about its bench, because it’s woefully short. Looking toward the Royals again, old friend Matt Duffy is probably available and has a .757 OPS.
There’s got to be someone out there who can help this team.
In any case, Jed Hoyer & Co. should look to be buyers, not sellers, as the trading deadline approaches. That’s still two months away, incidentally — plenty of time for the Cubs to go on a run and get closer to the division lead after a pretty bad May.
Hopefully, that starts Friday in San Diego.