Following a 7-2 win over the Mets on Tuesday, the Cubs finished the night 4 1/2 games back of the first-place Brewers in the National League Central. The Cubs are still very much in the race (they’re only three games out of an NL Wild Card spot, too) with 115 games left to play. But that doesn’t necessarily make Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer feel better about the team’s last month of play.
Not when the team has gone 9-19 since it was a season-high five games over .500 on April 21. Not when the team managed just two wins and a minus-27 run differential on a nine-game road trip against playoff hopefuls. And not when the two most notable levers the front office has pulled (promoting Christopher Morel and Matt Mervis) haven’t done a whole lot to change the club’s recent fortunes.
“Certainly, it’s great that no one’s running away with the division,” Hoyer said, “but ultimately, the standard has to be high and you have to build a team that can sort of win at every level. You can take some solace in [only being 4 1/2 games back], but ultimately, it doesn’t make me feel better about our record or where we are.”
As it stands, the Cubs are still in the thick of an early season playoff race. Some of it can be attributed to a solid first four weeks that banked the Cubs a few extra (and now necessary) wins. But some of it is just plain luck that the rest of the division hasn’t been so good, either.
“Thank goodness for the shitty play of everybody in the division, I guess,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
Then again, the two teams considered the preseason favorites in the NL Central are starting to look like it.
The Cubs are struggling to gain ground on a Brewers team trying to weather a storm of injuries to the rotation. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have won 12 of their last 16 and are right on the Cubs’ tail. FanGraphs gives Milwaukee and St. Louis a 48.5 percent and 33 percent chance to win the division at the moment.
The Cubs, given a distant 9.8 percent shot to take the Central crown, can somewhat lean on the fact that it’s not even Memorial Day yet. Going on a nice run here will keep them in the hunt and help close some of that gap. But on the other hand, stacking up more losses will obviously make that hole even deeper.
“Those are the most frustrating [stretches], when you can’t get out of that rut and you kind of bury yourself,” Hoyer said. “And then you realize, in order to balance that out, you have to have one heck of a 10-game stretch.”
This extended span of struggles hasn’t been limited to any one area of the team. The offense has been inconsistent, especially in high-leverage situations (a .180 average in those spots from April 22 through Sunday, second-worst in MLB). The starting pitching had their share of clunkers on this last nine-game road trip.
But if any one area of the team has frustrated the fan base most, it’s the bullpen. Entering Tuesday, their 4.50 ERA on the year was the seventh-highest in the majors. Their 9.10 ERA during the road trip was the worst in baseball over that stretch.
In recent seasons, the Cubs found success using veterans to fill up the back end of the bullpen. In 2021, Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Tepera and Andrew Chafin played the part. Last year, it was David Robertson, Chris Martin and Mychal Givens. However, the additions of veterans Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger haven’t work out thus far in 2023. That’s forced Ross to tinker with bullpen roles through the season, including using less-seasoned arms in more high-leverage spots.
And as we saw a lot in this stretch, relievers without long track records can’t always be trusted from game to game.
“We’ve candidly done a really good job of finding relievers that could come in and throw high-leverage innings at a relatively low cost on one-year deals [in recent years],” Hoyer said. “That area that we had a lot of success for a while, it hasn’t been an area of success this year. I think that’s been hard on Rossy, and that’s on me.”
It’s good to see Hoyer taking accountability, but that doesn’t mean much if the Cubs don’t start winning.
There aren’t really any deep trade discussions in baseball right now. Trades can happen, yes, but it’s not until July that “trade deadline season” really heats up. Still, Hoyer acknowledged that the deadline is on the mind for every team, whether they’re looking at buying or selling.
After two straight years of selloffs, nobody wants to start talking about the Cubs being sellers again with still a week left in May. They spent over $300 million on free agents this offseason. They’re seeing their top prospects rise through the system, hopefully to the point where some are ready to contribute soon. This is the part of the rebuild where the end is at least somewhat in sight. They should look like a more competitive ballclub, not one whose season seemed to be spiraling out of control.
A convincing win over the Mets to open the homestand is nice, but the season is getting to the point where you can’t keep it’s “early.” In just a couple of weeks, the Cubs will be closer to Deadline Day than Opening Day. If they want to avoid shipping out trade chips for the third year in a row, they just simply have to win ballgames.
“I feel like if you look at our season, we played great early against really tough teams, and then lost a lot of close games in a stretch that we should’ve won a lot more games, and that obviously hurt us,” Hoyer said. “I think that last road trip, no matter how good you are, you go on that road trip, it’s hard to make up a lot of ground. It’s hard to make up ground in certain tough stretches of your season. Ultimately, when I look back at our season, I think kind of having that run of one-run losses really knocked us back.
“We’re going to have to dig out from that, but the nature of baseball is you can’t put too much pressure on any one section of the season. But I do think that, yes, it’s not ‘early’ forever, and we need to bank some wins.”