On September 7 the Cubs took the first game of their season series against the Diamondbacks and had an 89.8 percent chance to make the playoffs. They were looking to finish their homestand strong against the D-backs despite matchups against Arizona’s two best pitchers before heading out on their final western road trip of the year for three games against the league-worst Rockies and three more games against those same Diamondbacks. Sometime later that week I got an email about how to sign up for a playoff ticket purchase opportunity at Wrigley Field for the first time in a few seasons and things were looking up.
What a difference 10 games can make. The Cubs lost the rest of those games against the Diamondbacks at Wrigley, only managed to take one of the games against the Rockies and then were swept at Chase Field. It was a 1-5 road trip and they’ve gone 2-8 in their last 10 games. The Cubs have gone from a virtual lock to make the postseason to being on the outside looking in and frankly, this chart speaks for itself:
The Cubs will look to reset and fight their way back into the Wild Card mix, but let’s not pretend it’s going to be easy. Today I want to look at three elements that will be crucial to whether or not the Cubs snag one of those Wild Card spots: the back of the bullpen, Cody Bellinger and tie breakers.
One of the things that went wrong for the Cubs during this stretch was certainly the bullpen. Cubs relievers have gone 1-4 with only two saves since that lone win against the Diamondbacks. They put Adbert Alzolay on the injured list retroactive to September 10 and won’t be eligible to return until at least September 25. Al did a great job discussing the possible closer options while Alzolay is out in this piece, however, it’s worth remembering that most of those guys got a shot a closing while Ross was working through his committee process.
That period did not work out particularly well for the Cubs. Alzolay really started racking up saves after the Giants series in June, so I looked at the Cubs record prior to Alzolay’s June 9 save and after it through his placement on the injured list. On June 8 the Cubs were 26-36, 10 games under .500 and had just been swept by the Angels. Between June 9 and September 9 they went 50-31 with Alzolay ensconced in the closer role. That’s half a season of a .630 win percentage with a dedicated closer compared to a .419 win percentage with the cast of characters sorting this thing out by committee without him. Someone is going to need to step up in a big way (Julian Merryweather, I’m looking at you) between now and September 25, or the Cubs will be watching the Wild Card round on TV.
When Dexter Fowler led off for the Cubs Joe Maddon liked to say “you go, we go.” The idea was that Fowler really got the Cubs offense going and made a difference to the whole team. He might not bat leadoff, but Cody Bellinger is that guy for the Chicago Cubs. Their downturn in May correlated with his time on the injured list, and while I hate looking at hitter stats in sample sizes as small as a week or 10 days, it’s safe to say that Bellinger is in a mini slump at a bad time. During this 2-8 stretch Bellinger is hitting .205/.256/.308. If you’re wondering where the Cubs offense went out west, well, this is a pretty good place to look.
Now, that’s a blip in an excellent season and it would not surprise me at all if Bellinger finishes the final 12 games of the 2023 regular season out closer to his season-long .311/.356/.534 slash line than the struggles of the last ten games, but if he continues to struggle someone else other than Seiya Suzuki will need to step up. These are the Cubs hitters sorted by wRC+ over the last two weeks:
Cubs hitters by wRC+ over the last two weeks
On August 31 I took a look at the Cubs’ remaining schedule and concluded that they controlled their own playoff destiny based on the games and teams remaining. Eighteen days and an abysmal 7-10 September later, the Cubs are going to need to finish strong and hope that some of the other potential Wild Card teams struggle because they have completely and utterly forfeited that schedule advantage.
Part of the reason the Cubs have gone from a virtual playoff lock to a less than 50 percent chance of playing meaningful baseball in October is due to tiebreakers and the teams who are left in the Wild Card race. Here are the Wild Card standings as of this morning:
The Cubs hold that third spot by the slimmest of margins. Their winning percentage is .5200, Cincinnati’s is .5197. Of course, that’s because of the different number of games played, which won’t be the case when the regular season ends. And in the event of a tie, there is no longer a game 163, the tiebreaker is head-to-head record. These are the Cubs head-to-head records against the relevant teams:
Look, all hope is not lost. There are 12 games remaining, starting with six against the Pirates and Rockies beginning tonight at Wrigley Field. But the Cubs have played themselves into just about the worst possible playoff position to start September and they are going to need to pull themselves out of that hole without Adbert Alzolay, Jeimer Candelario and with six games against the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers on the road to close out the season. You can squint and still see a path to playoff baseball on the North Side of Chicago, but there is almost no room for error for the 2023 Cubs playoff hopes.