The Cubs Are Gonna Be Alright: Reasons for Optimism

Last night’s result notwithstanding, The Cubs have stumbled a bit out of the All-Star break, going 13-11 against, overall, some pretty weak competition. This stretch of games has felt particularly concerning because it has fallen outside of the usual second half pattern of dominance the Cubs have established since Joe Maddon took over in 2015. It was easy to feel that the starting pitching, which significantly underperformed expectations in the first half, was about due for some positive regression. And it was easy to feel that some of the offensive erraticism would even out. But none of that has happened, and even though the Cubs do maintain the best record in the NL, there are legitimate areas of concern on the North Side.

It’s not fun or particularly interesting to process the baseball season at 10,000 feet, and there is absolutely something to be said for loving and riding out the day-to-day rollercoaster. But at times like this, it can also be useful to take a step back and specifically call out the forward-looking positives for the 2018 Cubs.

Overall Results and Record

As I already mentioned, the Cubs are in good shape in the most important metric: record. They aren’t in the same realm as the Red Sox, Yankees, or Astros, but while they arguably could be or should be, their record and current pace should be good enough to get the job done in the NL Central. 67-49 is the best record in the NL, and their Pythagorean records align with it precisely. Despite all the frustrating shutouts and wonky pitching, the Cubs have the most runs in the NL, the second-best run differential in the NL, and the fewest runs allowed in the Central. For a fanbase that’s witnessed all the rotation struggles the Cubs have had, that’s pretty good, and it’s indicative of a team that can still get better.

Last-Minute Edit: David Bote

Stars Returning

The Cubs are floundering a bit right now, but they’ll have reinforcements soon. Kris Bryant is the most obvious missing piece, and while David Bote has performed more than admirably in his absence, the prospect of another healthy Kris Bryant-level player returning to the lineup is not something that other contenders have. There’s still no timetable for Bryant’s return, but he took some pain-free swings over the weekend, and there’s still lots of optimism he’ll return in time to have an impact down the stretch. Health is no guarantee, but if he is healthy, there is little doubt that his bat will have a huge impact on the lineup.

The bullpen has mostly been a bright spot for the Cubs, especially since the addition of the suddenly-dominant Jesse Chavez over the last few weeks and the continued sparkling performance of Pedro Strop. It’s how they’ve managed to keep the Cubs’ overall run scored against numbers pretty good despite the struggles in the rotation. But the return of Brandon Morrow, who was one of the best closers in baseball in the first half, will do even more to lengthen the bullpen once that comes. Nobody wants to see this, but even in the scenario where the rotation doesn’t improve, this is a bullpen that can handle pitching four innings a game. Morrow is now throwing regularly off flat ground, and while there is no timetable for return yet, it’s good to know that the Cubs will be adding this sort of arm to their bullpen soon.

And finally, of course, Yu Darvish is slowly but surely working his way towards a return. He will throw a simulated game on Tuesday, which, if it goes well, would put him on pace to return within a month. This leads into the next positive.

The Rotation Has Options and Depth for the Playoffs

The Cubs’ rotation has not been very good this year, but there are still reasons for optimism. Besides the long-predicted Jon Lester regression that has taken hold over the last month, most expect Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana to experience some positive regression towards their usual performance down the stretch. This is true of Hendricks especially, as he’s actually posting 92 cFIP (equal to last year) and a 2.97 DRA (better than last year) and seems to have run into a lot of bad first inning cluster luck throughout the season—if you believe in that sort of thing. Darvish returning will also strengthen the rotation if he is healthy, and one could even imagine a scenario (if he pitches in line with his career numbers) where he becomes the Cubs’ best pitcher down the stretch.

But beyond the top of the rotation, there are back-end options. Mike Montgomery has been okay while filling in, and Cole Hamels has looked very good in his first few starts with the Cubs. Hamels obviously has a long track record of success, and if the change of scenery from Texas helps as much as it looks like it might have, then the Cubs have another battle-tested arm. And there’s even the Drew Smyly wild card. He likely won’t join the rotation this year, but he’s an arm that could be stretched out for a few innings out of the bullpen, and he’s always been effective during the rare parts of his career when he’s been healthy. To build a four-man postseason rotation and bullpen from all these parts shouldn’t be too daunting, and the postseason does still look like where the Cubs are headed.

The Rest of the NL

Perhaps biggest reason why the 2018 Cubs don’t need to be as polished as the Cubs of the last few years is that the NL simply isn’t as good. As bad as the rotation has looked at times, it still stacks up favorably against nearly every other rotation in the NL:

Cubs Dodgers Atlanta Phillies Diamondbacks Rockies Brewers
1. K. Hendricks 1. C. Kershaw 1. J. Teheran 1. A. Nola 1. Z. Greinke 1. T. Anderson 1. C. Anderson
2. J. Lester 2. W. Buehler 2. M. Foltynewicz 2. J. Arrieta 2. P. Corbin 2. J. Gray 2. J. Chacin
3. C. Hamels 3. R. Hill 3. S. Newcomb 3. N. Pivetta 3. C. Buchholz 3. K. Freeland 3. J. Guerra
4. M. Montgomery 4. H. Ryu 4. A. Sanchez 4. V. Velasquez 4. R. Ray 4. G. Marquez 4. W. Miley
5. J. Quintana 5. A. Wood 5. K. Gausman 5. Z. Godley 5. C. Bettis 5. F. Peralta

I’d probably take the Dodgers’ rotation first here, and I think the Dodgers are still probably the team that has the best chance of beating the Cubs for the pennant. The Dbacks have a solid rotation, too, and Atlanta and Philly have upside. But the Cubs—especially once you put Darvish back in there—are well ahead of most of their competition in terms of going-forward rotation, and I think I’d still put their top four above each of these teams except for LA. The Brewers’ rotation, especially, looks bad, and the poor performance of their rotation is the reason that BP sees them as overperforming so far. Wade Miley might be their best starter, so don’t be surprised if win-loss regression results. This gives the Cubs a very good chance, even with some struggles, to win the Central and make the Division series.

There isn’t a 2015 Mets or a 2017 Dodgers in this year’s NL, and I’d still argue that the Cubs are definitely favorites to advance at least to the NLCS for the fourth consecutive year. The Dodgers are right there, and they are in fact the only team in the NL with a better third-order winning percentage, but they too are weaker compared to last year. Once the Cubs are able to refine their rotation to four men, they should be around even or better odds against this year’s NL competition in any playoff series.

The AL contenders are a different story, and no one in the NL matches up favorably against them. You wouldn’t see those teams until a short and unpredictable seven-game series in October anyway, though. And for all of the reasons above, the Cubs could very well be there at that time. It’s okay to be frustrated by setbacks in the meantime, but there’s still a good chance that the 2018 Cubs will be just about all you can ask for.

Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports

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