Ryan Bukowiecki is a student at the Illinois Media School and a contributor to The D & Davis Show and WARR
The Chicago Cubs are at a very real crossroad in their 2017 title defense season.
The all-star break is a time to gear up for a strong finish that will hopefully lead to a division title or a wild card berth.
Coming out of the break, the Cubs face a 5 1/2 game deficit out of first in the division behind Milwaukee and a 7 1/2 loss from the last wild card spot. Based on the way the first half has looked, things got ugly at times for the champs, particularly so in the horrible 14-3 loss to the Pirates in the last game before the break. But things changed on Thursday with the Cubs acquiring much coveted White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana. Just like that the remainder of this season doesn’t seem as dire as it had looked last Sunday.
Before the trade, fangraphs.com had the Cubs playoff odds as follows; division 53.4%, wildcard 9.9% for an overall playoff probability of 63.3%. After the trade their overall playoff probability increased to 67.4%, and for good reason. Quintana hasn’t had the eye popping numbers so far this year as previous ones, but since the beginning of June he has been great.
In his last 7 starts, 40 IP with a 2.70 ERA to go along with 45 SO to 16 Walks for a WHIP of 1.20. Out of all the Cubs starters in that time frame, Eddie Butler has the lowest ERA at 3.55. Quintana becomes an instant upgrade to a Cubs rotation desperate for more consistent quality starts.
Before the trade, Cubs president Theo Epstein had an interesting answer when he was asked about the Cubs making a splash by the deadline.
“If we can improve the club through trade we will, but our biggest fixes are inside the clubhouse,” Epstein said. “This is largely the same team that won 200 games the last two years, and there’s not a player we realistically can bring in from the outside who can spur us to play at that level. We’re going to get to the point of playing at that level because of the guys who are here.”
The Quintana trade gives a moment of optimism and relief in what has been a frustrating season so far. The Cubs have 10 more games against the NL Central-leading Brewers but with a bad stretch or inconsistent play, 10 games might not be enough for the Cubs to control their fate. Besides the addition of Quintana, who makes his Cub debut Sunday in the finale at Baltimore, here are a couple more elements to keep in mind as the Cubs head into the second half.
Quintana takes pressure off the starters but the Cubs will still need more pitching, enter Hendricks. The Cubs need Hendricks to first get healthy and second be the pitcher he was a year ago. Hendricks went 16-8 with a 2.13 ERA and a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 4.5 last year.
This year he has not looked like that player consistently but he has been hurt with a knuckle issue. His month of May was encouraging, 2.78 ERA with 74 SO to 21 walks. Opponents had a batting average of just .220, if the Cubs get this guy back then this rotation may go from old and busted back to playoff contender. Hendricks appears to be nearing a return, he pitched a rehab start this past Monday with no issue. As reported by Patrick Mooney of CSN-Chicago, Hendricks will have another rehab assignment before potentially returning to the rotation.
I know, Schwarber has been a massive disappointment this season, but Schwarber remains interesting in a couple ways going forward from the all-star break.
Schwarber’s stat line last week was encouraging, .286 AVG/.375 On Base/.643 Slugging/1.018 OPS. Okay, it was just four games but this can be big for the Cubs if the trend continues after the break.
Obviously, if Schwarber becomes great again it would help an up and down offense significantly. The Cubs as a team have a slash line of .239 AVG/.326 On Base/.419 Slugging/.744 OPS. Also, if Schwarber becomes great again his market value will go up and he can become tradable. I don’t know if management would trade him but no doubt teams will be calling if he keeps close to that slash line. A sustained good stretch after the break would be a big addition like Quintana.
Another trade at the deadline:
Yes, the Cubs have made a big move, but that doesn’t mean they are done dealing. Things look better after the Quintana trade but there are issues that need answering if the Cubs are going to compete — continued needs include a consistent lead off hitter, maybe another starter, backup catcher, and no team ever has enough bullpen arms.
The Cubs still have time to assess the team before the July 31st deadline, it seems unlikely for them to make another big move but there have been reports that they would be willing to trade one of the young positional players. There are also reports that they are looking for another bullpen arm and back up catcher. These are just reports but they have pulled off surprise trades before.
No matter what, this season has become a positive for the Cubs now that they have a legit front end starter under contract control. This was a problem the Cubs absolutely needed to fix with Arrieta and Lackey’s futures each up in the air. Even with Arrieta and Lackey, this team needs a good Kyle Hendricks to return and fortify the rotation. If Hendricks gets healthy, I think he will do exactly that.
This offense needs plenty of work too, especially at the lead off and with their situational hitting with runners on base. Guys like Russell, Zobrist and Baez need to have more of an impact consistently but a revival of Schwarber would be huge for this inconsistent offense. I think the rehab stint was good for Schwarber and moving forward I expect him to look like the player we thought he’d be this season.
We know from the history of Theo’s regime that the Cubs will try and improve the ball club any way they can. Another trade isn’t out of the question and could even be anticipated given how the club has been so good at executing trades under its current leadership.
Cub fans, we have a long month of July and second half ahead of us. All the way, from management on down, lets get ready to see what this team is really made of.
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