Chicago Cubs (7/4/17)

I’ll admit, I was rooting for the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series this past Postseason. Sure, when the Cubs achieved possibly the most iconic baseball feat many of us had ever witnessed in our entire lives, I was rapt in awe. I was misty-eyed, thinking about every Cub who’d fallen short of that moment throughout history, and the fans who gutted each woeful season out. Many of those people have passed on, never knowing what would transpire in a glorious early November night amidst the rain and wind. And to see those who remained, the look on their faces, and the unity a child’s game could provide for an entire city, if not an entire sport, was nothing short of overwhelming.

But I did want Cleveland. Not because I thought the Indians deserved to win more than the Cubs, in fact, I thought both teams deserved the title. My decision to pull for the Indians was out of sheer expectation of the Cubs being in a better place to at least repeat a World Series appearance. Not that I wrote Cleveland off as a Cinderella story, but the recent years of growth and dominance in the North side of Chicago had been impossible to ignore, much less discount.

However, the adage, “Oh, the difference a day makes” might as well translate to a year in length. The Cubs of 2017 have been a far cry from the club that broke a 100+ year’s curse. Not that there has been much of a departure of talent, save for Aroldis Chapman and Jorge Soler. Instead, injuries have depleted Chicago to the point of a 41-41 season as the All-Star break approaches.

The Cub’s rotation has taken the brunt of injury this season as Kyle Hendricks and Brett Anderson find themselves shelved. Much more concerning is the increasing vulnerability of the starters who remain. Jake Arrieta has not been the same pitcher who just last year through a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and while his 4.33 ERA is far from his career worst, the mark is considerably higher than his career average of 3.65 over seven seasons.

38-year-old John Lackey hasn’t fared any better, posting a 5.24 ERA in 16 starts, good enough for a record of 5-9. Much like Bartolo Colon, many times over, insiders and fans alike have falsely concluded Lackey’s numbers to spell out a bitter end, only to be wrong. But the question remains to be contradicted by either this year as to whether they can get off the proverbial mat and fight back. Playing in his 15th year, Lackey has only posted a losing record twice, once in 2003 with the Anaheim Angels (10-16), and in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox (10-13). But the Cubs didn’t sign Lackey as an ace, rather to eat innings and provide solid upside as a workhorse.

The brightest spot in the rotation remains Jon Lester, who at 33-years-old is 5-4 in 17 games, posting a 3.69 ERA and 104 strikeouts. Lester’s consistency has kept Chicago in contention as the rotation’s other pieces continue to iron out their wrinkles. Lester’s June should be enough to keep the resonant embers going of the fire that once was hot. In six outings the southpaw went 2-1 with a 3.41 ERA, while striking out 37 and walking 10.

As the pitching does its best to keep the hinges screwed, Cub hitting too needs to find consistency. The continual mystery that has become Jason Heyward, which was once again advertised this season as new and improved, has been much of the same. Taking nothing away from the 27-year-old’s dedication or the massive amount of work that has seemingly been attached to every off-season, his output seems to deem the numbers he put up in 2012 (.269/28HR/82 RBI) as a fluke.

On the plus side however, the most recent adjustments made to Heyward’s swing seems to have paid off well, as he is one home run shy of matching last season’s high of seven. Such progress is warmly welcomed for an offense that is ranked third in runs scored among the National League Central.

The overall picture is not bleak however. With plenty of games remaining and plenty of time left to turn their fortunes around, the 6-game deficit separating the Cubs from the Milwaukee Brewers for the top spot in the Central doesn’t have to resemble a mountain. The bottom line remains that the cubs have a deep roster and some of the best pitching by name in the entire league. Those pitchers will return to form, and the Cubs will make this a race, sooner than later.