The Cubs have played themselves into a tough spot.
They’re 42-47 heading into the start of the second half Friday. They’re seven games back of the Reds for first place in the National League Central and 6 1/2 back of an NL Wild Card spot. As it stands now, unless 1) they go on a roll the next couple of weeks and 2) Cincinnati and Milwaukee both scuffle, they likely go into the trade deadline on Aug. 1 as sellers.
However, the Cubs are entering a soft spot in their schedule. Over their next 16 games, the first three against the Red Sox this weekend are their only games against a team that isn’t double-digit games below .500. So, they have a chance to make up some ground if they take care of business.
What else do we need to see out of the Cubs in the second half? The CHGO Cubs team weighs in.
1. Give us one good and one bad takeaway from the first half.
Corey Freedman: Good — Dansby Swanson rules. There was so much discussion about the big four shortstops available this offseason, and for a bit, whether the Cubs would even end up with one of them. To sit here at the end of the first half with Dansby Swanson leading all of them in fWAR, while being on the most team-friendly contract of the bunch is an absolute ‘W’ for president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and company. Obviously, there’s a lot more baseball to play for those guys and those contracts, but Swanson looks to be everything the Cubs could have asked for and the best signing of that group so far.
Bad — The Cubs’ depth/roster construction. The first base situation has been an absolute mess with Eric Hosmer getting, predictably, DFA’d, Trey Mancini not hitting well and looking generally unplayable in the field and Matt Mervis struggling in his first stint in the big leagues. It was a position a lot of fans/media members felt the Cubs did not address properly in the offseason and it has certainly bit them in the early going here. Beyond just first base, the Cubs did not have a proper backup in RF when Seiya Suzuki missed time early in the season, have gotten terrible production from Tucker Barnhart as a hitter and lack real power threats to deepen this lineup. The Cubs have gotten some good performances on offense, but the depth of this roster has been really poor.
Brendan Miller: Good — The Cubs have secured a middle infield duo for the next five years in Swanson and Nico Hoerner. Swanson has shown improved plate discipline with his lowest chase rate ever, and he has excelled against up-and-in fastballs, making more contact than ever before.
Bad — The Cubs lack a definite solution for the corner infield positions. Patrick Wisdom has been hampered by injuries, Hosmer has been designated for assignment, Mancini’s performance has declined significantly and Mervis has struggled at the big league level. Consequently, the Cubs’ corner infield ranks among the least valuable in MLB.
Cody Delmendo: Good — Justin Steele proved the second half of 2022 wasn’t a fluke. His future with the Cubs is bright.
Bad — Jameson Taillon has been a massive disappointment to this point.
2. Justin Steele had a breakout first half, leading to his first All-Star nod. What do you need to see him do in the second half?
Freedman: Just keep doing what he has been for the past calendar year plus. He has established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball and earned every accolade coming his way. It’s an unfair burden to put upon him to expect him to continue to lead the league in ERA for the rest of the season, but everything we have seen from Steele as his career has progressed to this point suggests he is up to that task.
Miller: First and foremost, it is crucial for Steele to complete his first full season with 25+ starts. Ideally, I would love to see him approach 30 starts, a goal he shared with CHGO at the Cubs Convention. Steele has achieved tremendous success as one of MLB’s top starters thanks to his exceptional command and an impressive BB/9 ratio below 2. However, he has prioritized inducing soft contact and reducing walks over generating strikeouts. In the second half, it would be beneficial for him to focus on increasing his strikeout numbers and pushing his whiff rate above the league average, which currently stands at 81%. While an above-average whiff rate is not mandatory for top-tier value, it is undoubtedly a prerequisite for becoming a bona fide, elite and dominant ace.
Delmendo: He currently sits at 91 1/3 innings pitched in 16 starts. I’m asking for him to reach 150 innings by the end of the season.
3. The Cubs are staring at a third straight deadline as sellers. What needs to happen the next few weeks to turn it around?
Freedman: They come out of this break playing a schedule that really could not be more favorable. Outside of the Red Sox, none of the teams they play before the trade deadline are over .500. Meanwhile, the Reds and Brewers play each other multiple times and have much stiffer competition outside of that. If the Cubs need to go on a little run after the break to convince Hoyer and company to avoid selling off, this is the perfect schedule to do so. So, simply put, the Cubs need to take advantage of this weak schedule. If they can’t, they won’t deserve any potential additions at the deadline anyway.
Miller: They need more power. This requires both Ian Happ and Suzuki to start hitting more home runs. Happ has shown a patient approach, but he is on track to have his lowest HR/FB rate ever. Similarly, Suzuki’s approach seems controlled and deliberate, but at times it seems like he sacrifices the likelihood of hard contact for patience. While Suzuki’s exit velocity, hard-hit rate and chase rate rank among the best in MLB, he has only hit seven home runs. My hope is he can convert his patience and power into selective aggressiveness, resulting in more homers.
Delmendo: They need Happ and Suzuki to wake up. Jason Heyward has more homers than either of them this season. They need to start hitting consistently, and more importantly, driving in runs consistently.
4. A number of prospects are closing in on the big leagues. If the Cubs aren’t competing in the second half, who would you most like to see get the call?
Freedman: I think Pete Crow-Armstrong is the obvious choice just because we are all anxious to finally see him at beautiful, historic Wrigley Field, but I’ll go with Jordan Wicks. He was always expected to be a quick mover through the system, and I would love to see him get a start or two or even go the bullpen first, a route we have seen the Cubs take with a lot of pitching prospects.
Miller: It appears to be a clear choice, but I strongly advocate for Pete Crow-Armstrong to receive a call-up by the end of the season. He possesses the qualities of a highly competitive individual with a “win-at-all-costs” mentality. By promoting PCA, not only would it reinforce that attitude, but it would also provide him with the opportunity to develop further in a highly charged environment that often necessitates adjusting. I think PCA is unique in that he can leverage these environments more than the average guy and, as a result, adjust faster. I want the adjustment period to begin immediately, and I think at the very least his defense in CF and base running ability can provide value to the MLB squad.
Delmendo: Wicks just got the call to Iowa within the last month. I’d love to see him get a handful of starts in September if he earns the opportunity.
5. Give us your second half predictions (including the Cubs’ final record).
Freedman: I think the Cubs end up doing a mix of buying and selling, with nothing too crazy going in either direction. I would like to see them add some players that can help them in 2024 and beyond, potentially using this deadline to address some of the depth problems I mentioned earlier. I think the state of the division will allow the Cubs to be “in the mix” until the bitter end, but I would be lying if I said I thought this team was going to win the division. I hope to be proven wrong, but I think they have wasted too much time in a poor division which has ultimately allowed a team like the Reds to get hot and feel like they have a real chance to go for it. I’ll say the Cubs finish at 80-82.
Miller: The Cubs have notably fallen short of their expected record by seven wins at the halfway point. I anticipate their actual record aligning with their expected record in the second half of the season. If I were to make a bet, I think they will finish with 78-80 wins, narrowly missing the playoffs by a few games. However, it’s important to remember that baseball is a sport where randomness and unpredictable events can ruin lives. So, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Cubs surpass their expected record and find themselves in contention for a playoff spot by the final week of the season. This scenario could be attributed to increased power from players like Happ, Suzuki, Swanson and Cody Bellinger, as well as consistent performances from starting pitchers such as Steele, Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, and Kyle Hendricks.
Delmendo: I believe the Cubs have fully underperformed. They have three All-Stars yet are five games under .500 at the break. They’ve gotten good production from guys you didn’t necessarily expect yet sit in this position. It doesn’t make sense. I think Happ and Suzuki really start to produce in the second half to help propel them over the .500 mark. They still are the only team in the NL Central with a positive run differential. I think they will close in on the Reds and Brewers and at least make this stretch run interesting. I’m sticking with my season prediction of 88-74.