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Justin Steele has enough on his plate these days.
He’s got a new baby boy named Beau with his fiancé, Libby, who was born Monday at 9:34 a.m. on the same day as Steele’s 27th birthday. That’s on top of still carving out a role for himself in the Cubs rotation roughly 11 months after the team gave him his first chance to start at the big-league level.
So much has gone on for him in a whirlwind last few days that Steele almost doesn’t have time to consider where the Cubs are at in the standings. As cliche as it has become, Steele certainly seems to be taking to the idea of controlling what he can control and letting the things he can’t play out how they may.
“That’s not something I really think about,” Steele said about the juxtaposition between seeing improvements in himself while his team struggles. “I just kind of go out there and do my part. Just go out there and do what I got to do to get people out. Focus on each lineup as I’m going into it, focus on my routine and whatnot and let everything else just solve itself.”
That “control what I can control” mantra is something plenty of players in that clubhouse have discussed this season, whether that be for in-game happenings, trade deadline rumors or what have you.
Steele controlled what he could control in bouncing back from allowing four runs (three earned) over the first two innings on Wednesday to produce his fourth quality start in his last seven outings. But he still couldn’t control the outcome of the game, as the Cubs floundered in a 7-1 loss to the Orioles at Wrigley Field — and in the process, fell to 20 games below .500 for the first time in 2022.
That number is significant, because that’s exactly where the Cubs ended the 2021 season that saw the club go from a possible playoff outlook into a full-scale rebuild. Once the Cubs parted ways with the likes of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez by the July 30 trade deadline last season, not much stood in the way of stopping the team that went into the last day of July five games under to ending the year down another 15 games.
That 20-game difference is actually not as far as the Cubs sank last season. They reached that mark for the first time after a doubleheader against the Cardinals on Sept. 24, when they were 67-87, 49 games after the sell-off was completed, and after losing the next three contests, the Cubs fell to a season-high 23 games over .500.
An extreme optimist could give this year’s team credit for so far not reaching 23 games under and for making it through 88 games before hitting the big 2-0. But that’s not how this should be viewed in the slightest.
All offseason, the front office — namely chairman Tom Ricketts and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer — said this team would be competitive. After forcing fans to witness the nearly-complete dismantling of the 2016 World Series team followed by a 21-36 stretch of baseball to close out the year, the Cubs were supposed to put a better team out on the field. But right now, this team is anything but competitive.
Sure, they won four straight series heading into this past weekend’s four-game set in Los Angeles, but none of those were sweeps. Going into that stretch 18 games below .500, the Cubs only managed to improve that number to 14 games under. And now, following six straight losses to the Dodgers and the Orioles, the Cubs are nearing a 100-loss pace in ’22, which would be only the fourth time the club has ever reached triple-digit losses.
And while the losses are already piling up, there’s a very real chance things get even worse before this season is over.
Before the All-Star break begins on Monday, the Cubs welcome the Mets to town for a four-game series starting Thursday. The Mets come into the series 21 games above .500 with the second-best record in the NL (and fourth-best in the majors). They’ve won six of their last 10 games, while the Cubs have only won two. In this situation, there’s a very real possibility that the Cubs head into the break on a 10-game losing streak, which would be their fourth double-digit drought in just over a calendar year.
Then, you take into account that the Aug. 2 deadline is just two weeks after the All-Star Game on Tuesday. If the Cubs are already 20 games under .500 now, how much further could they sink?
“I think the trade deadline is part of the business, especially when you’re not in the position to make the playoffs,” manager David Ross said. “At the end of the season, there’s no reward for 77 (wins) or 83. It’s like, do you make the playoffs or don’t you? Do you win a division or don’t you? That’s what we’re trying to get to, and the faster we can get there, the better. The business side along the way is just part of it, but at the end of the day, I’m going to be pissed whether we go home not making the playoffs by 13 games or not making it by one game.”
On the positive side of things, Willson Contreras was elected Friday to be the starting catcher for the National League in the All-Star Game for the third time in his career, and Ian Happ made his first-career All-Star team when reserves were announced Sunday. Those were feel-good moments for two players who have spent their entire professional careers in the organization and have been the two most productive and consistent position players on the Cubs for a majority of this season.
That, however, has not stopped the trade rumors in which the two have been discussed constantly. Both have made it clear that they want to remain with the Cubs, but if Hoyer — who, as he showed last year, won’t let sentimentality get in the way — receives the right deal for either one (or both), he’ll likely take it and leave one or two big holes in the lineup.
“That stuff is part of the process that the front office takes care of,” Ross said. “We have conversations. I think we’re going to be a really good team really soon, and that’s where we’re trying to get to. If pieces get moved around until then, I think that’s just part of our business. The players understand that. I understand that. There has to be a sense of patience from everybody as well. We’re trying to get players that we have now better, and we know we have All-Star-caliber players that are really good. Sometimes, that timeline doesn’t match up where you get to keep those guys.”
As you turn your attention toward the bullpen, you see where there could be subtractions from there, too.
Despite a couple of blown saves last week, David Robertson still sports a 2.10 ERA and has struck out 45 batters in 34 1/3 innings. Chris Martin has allowed at least one earned run over his last three outings but had pitched nine straight scoreless relief appearances prior to that. Mychal Givens hasn’t allowed a run in 10 consecutive outings, striking out 13 and walking four in 12 innings over that stretch.
All three are veterans who know the game. And all three are likely to be this season’s version of Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera when the deadline rolls around.
“I just come to the field with the boys and just prepare to win a ballgame,” said Givens, who’s been traded mid-year in both of the last two seasons. “All that trade talk is not really relevant to me. I’m satisfied just coming to the ball field, and if I get traded, I get traded. I don’t worry about stuff I can’t control.”
The rotation has long been the most volatile group on the team, and that’s especially been true when it comes to the players who were supposed to provide veteran leadership.
Kyle Hendricks went on the 15-day injured list on July 6 with a right shoulder strain, and Ross said Wednesday that it’ll likely be 2-3 weeks before he even starts to play catch. Wade Miley has been in the same boat since June 10 with his left shoulder strain, and the most recent update is that he’s still just playing catch.
On the flip side, both Marcus Stroman and Drew Smyly returned from the IL over the weekend and are scheduled for one more turn through the rotation before the break. But even they both missed over a month of the season due to injuries. In total, those four have started just 40 of the Cubs’ first 88 games this season while the team has had to turn to young arms like Steele and Keegan Thompson to carry the load.
“I think if you want to go down that road of like, ‘Well, if everybody was healthy, we’d be really good,’ (but) I don’t care to play that game,” Ross said. “I think everybody goes through adversity, and we’ve got to figure out a way to win. … I don’t know, and neither do you, what it looks like for everybody to be healthy and what our team would look like, so we look at it the way it is right now and hope to get those guys back soon.”
All four have been discussed as trade chips, though at this point, Smyly (who’s actually healthy now and on a one-year, $5.25 million with a mutual option for ’23) is the likeliest to be dealt as long as he can get through another couple of starts without incident.
That’ll be just one of the blows likely to come by Aug. 2. If you thought the losses were mounting already, that loss column could still look even worse at the beginning of October. The Cubs were only going to be competitive if most of the things that needed to go right actually went right, and that obviously didn’t happen.
So, here they are with 74 games left in the season and a road to 100 losses in front of them over the next 2 1/2 months.
Despite what Cubs fans were told, this was always going to be a rebuild. And now, anyone who forgot what 2012 looked like can see an ugly sequel firsthand on the North Side.
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