At the All-Star break, the Cubs are on pace to lose over 100 games. They finished the first half of the season on Sunday with a 3-2 win over the Mets, narrowly avoiding extending their losing streak to 10 games. That would have been the second time this season and the fourth time since last June that the Cubs put together a double-digit losing streak.
On Saturday, the Cubs dropped both extra-inning games of their doubleheader with the Mets, marking the first time they’ve done that at Wrigley Field since May 7, 1944 against the Pirates.
Considering the Cubs were in first place in their division not quite thirteen months ago, this has been a precipitous fall from grace. The good news could be that the Cubs might not stay down for long.
“We’re going to find a way to win,” manager David Ross said Saturday night. “These guys keep giving the effort every single day. Day-night doubleheader against a first-place team with a $300 million payroll, these guys were fighting their ass off. So I’m really proud of that. Really proud of that.”
If there was any kind of silver lining in their recent losing streak, the Cubs played close against good teams (the Dodgers and Mets) and against hot teams (the Orioles). Of the nine straight losses, only two of them were by more than two runs. Against the Mets Sunday, the Cubs came from behind to score their tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning.
Ross said that he plans to encourage his team to treat the series in Philadelphia after the All-Star break as a reset. Time to put the first half in the rearview and push forward. But realistically, there are going to be more changes to the roster in the coming weeks, or even days. Willson Contreras is going to start the All-Star game Tuesday night in a Cubs uniform, but it will very likely be one of the last times he dons the Cubbie blue pinstripes. Reset or not, wins will be even harder to come by without Contreras.
What then, beyond mentally and physically recharging over the next four days, will help this Cubs team compete again?
Ross alluded to the Mets and their high payroll, and there is likely an undercurrent of frustration in that. The Cubs’ payroll is about half the $280 million the Mets are taking the field with this year. While there are always outliers, like the Rays, the reality is that spending money goes a long way toward being competitive. The Yankees and Dodgers have payrolls of $247 and $257 million, respectively.
The Cubs did sign Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki during the offseason, both signaling the fact that the front office probably does not intend on this being a lengthy rebuild. In the short-term, though, there are things the Cubs can do to start winning more frequently as currently constructed.
“It’s about being consistent and having consistency throughout the lineup, throughout your pitching staff, throughout the daily processes is what we’re trying to get to,” Ross said.
They have had good stretches this year, too. The Cubs won each of the four series leading up to the nine-game losing streak. Three of those were against the Cardinals, Red Sox, and Dodgers, all teams above .500.
“There’s learning moments in there and there’s successful moments, but consistently it has to show up in this game, and I think that’s the hardest part,” Ross said.
As a microcosm of this, Ross pointed to first-time All-Star Ian Happ. This year, Happ is having his most successful and most consistent season since his rookie year in 2017. He is batting .274 with an .807 OPS going into the break, but it has been a bumpy road at times getting from where he was as a rookie to the player he has been this year.
Part of the difference for Happ as an individual has been regular playing time. Happ noted that of the 92 games the Cubs have had this season, he has played 90 of them. As one of the most senior members of the roster, Happ said he hopes that his personal success will provide something of an example to some of the less experienced players.
“It’s such a team game, but it’s an individual sport within the team game,” Happ said. “You’re doing all these things on your own, physically and mentally by yourself to try to help the team win. All those little victories you have for yourself throughout a day, throughout a week, throughout a season, you’re trying to use those.
“Learn from the bad things and just continue that process, and it all filters into the bigger picture of trying to help the team win.”
But Ross points out that it has taken time and a few stops and starts for Happ to get to the player he is now. In the same way, so will the Cubs as a whole. There are a lot of young players, and even some of the older ones don’t have a lot of major league experience.
“A lot of these guys haven’t been through a full season, ever. That in itself, outside of performance, is a task and something really hard that you learn to get through,” Ross said. “We don’t have a lot of position players that know what that’s like to get through a full season and put up numbers and the grind that you go through.”
Among those are guys like Christopher Morel and Nico Hoerner in the lineup and Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele in the rotation, who have been bright spots during a tough season. Even though they’re doing a lot of losing these days, Ross sees the learning that is taking place.
“We all know we’re not where we want to be, but the difficult challenges we go through make us better every single day, myself included,” Ross said. “The players being in the environments we’re getting put in right now, we’ll be able to handle those moments better in the long run, years to come, playing good teams, competing deep into games, extra inning games. Those are all really good things.”
While it is good to see someone like Hoerner step up and help the Cubs win a game, like he did going 3-for-4 Sunday and driving in the game-winning run, in the big picture Hoerner is going to be an important part of where the Cubs go next. In these tough losses, he is learning the same kinds of lessons that Ross and Happ described.
“Staying level-headed and just trying to see things for what they are and not letting things get blown out of proportion, whether it’s things you can’t control or recent results,” Hoerner said. “We’ve had a tough stretch of opponents and close games and losses, and there is a lot of positives within that. We had a lot of great pitching performances recently. We’ve had stretches where we’ve swung the bat well. It’s just a matter of putting the two together.”
It is probably not practical to expect that the Cubs will put all of that learning together and start playing with better consistency in the second half of this season. But looking beyond 2022, the growth much of the roster is experiencing now will be very valuable.
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