When the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years back in 2016, it had all the makings of a dynasty. Of course, you know the story at this point in which the club has not only not managing to follow up on their historic season, but has managed to burn up quite a bit of goodwill in doing so.
And so it comes as no surprise that the Cubs are where they are as we approach the season’s unofficial midway point here in July. The team failed the sign any of their “core” members long-term over the winter or during the spring. Their most notable acquisitions of the offseason came in the form of Joc Pederson and Jake Arrieta, with those signings only coming due to a slight 11th-hour increase to the budget. And, as of this writing, they’ve lost 11 straight games, which has resulted in not only losing their already flimsy grip on first place in the NL Central, but falling to nine games back of the Milwaukee Brewers.
As you might expect, the numbers aren’t great.
The Cubs rank 26th in the league in pitcher fWAR (4.1). While their 3.99 staff ERA ranks 14th, their 4.49 FIP sits 24th, and they also feature the fifth-highest BB/9 (3.93). When you hone in on the starters specifically, it gets worse. Their 4.58 ERA is 22nd in baseball, while their 4.95 FIP is the second-worst. Their 7.67 K/9 ranks just 26th, and the 3.39 BB/9 that the rotation has produced is 24th. No starter has been immune to it, but Jake Arrieta has been a particularly unique brand of awful; he surrendered seven runs on Tuesday against the Philadelphia Phillies, helping him to an ERA that ranks fifth-worst among all Major League Starters (6.30).
Even the vaunted bullpen has shown cracks. Since the middle of June, they have the fourth-highest ERA (5.66) and have the third-highest Hard% among any relief corps at 37.6. At least some of that is very likely because they’ve already thrown 325 innings this year. Of the six teams that have thrown more, only two are contending clubs (Tampa Bay & San Diego). The Rays obviously have their own way of operating, while the Padres have had to stave off some injuries across the staff. They, however, also have the offense to compensate while they figure things out on the bump. The Cubs came in with a questionable starting staff that lacked both depth and velocity, and it has become fairly clear that their bullpen could only buoy that for so long.
That’s just on the pitching side. The offense has been its own special type of disaster in recent weeks. The only team striking out more is the Detroit Tigers (26.6 percent), while only the Tigers and Rays have lower contact rates (73.6 percent). Since June 15th, though, they’ve been the worst offensive team in baseball. Their team wRC+ sits at 70. They’ve scored 48 runs. Their whiff rate is 14.5 percent. Their strikeout rate has ballooned to up over 30 percent. Each of those figures puts them at exactly 30th in the league.
Sure, there are a couple of more positive factors you can point to. Their ISO and walk rates both sit middle-of-the-pack. Same with their hard contact rate. Not terrible. But even those become far less positive when you consider that they’d have to be quite a bit higher to even begin to compensate for the inability to make contact on a consistent basis.
Those struggles have made unclear futures far murkier for members of the core. Kris Bryant got off to an MVP-caliber start but went completely dark in June (wRC+ of 27). Javier Báez has been a barely above-average offensive player by wRC+ (103) while striking out at the highest rate (36.9 percent) since he was a rookie. Ian Happ, who many thought was poised for a breakout, has a wRC+ of 80 and is making hard contact at the lowest rate of his career (30.6). Jason Heyward has regressed from whatever modest offensive strides he had made (74 wRC+).
That’s not to dismiss the injury issues entirely. Anthony Rizzo missed some time with his annual back issues. Nico Hoerner was out for an extended period with a hamstring injury. David Bote has been out since the end of May. Bryant and Báez have had their own lingering health issues, while Heyward and Joc Pederson have each hit the IL at one point. More than anything, when your roster requires meaningful innings from the likes of Eric Sogard, Matt Duffy, Patrick Wisdom, or Sergio Alcantara, you’re likely not going to be able to maintain any kind of offensive production. It doesn’t completely excuse the absence of impact on that side of the ball, but it does lend at least some explanation for it.
Ultimately, though, the point isn’t how the Cubs got here. Despite whatever delusion their strong start might have indicated, it was fairly clear that their front office had no legitimate aspirations for longer-term success when their roster remained stagnant in an entirely winnable division. As such, the question becomes exactly what the Cubs do from here.
Because while the front office has yet to commit to a buyer or seller mentality, they sit nine games out of the division and seven-and-a-half out of the wild card. Hope is sparse at this point, especially with both the offense and the pitching trending in the way that they are. So now you are forced to confront the specter that you’ve essentially been refusing to acknowledge for the past few offseasons.
Bryant, Rizzo, and Báez can all walk this winter. Willson Contreras can after next season. I won’t belabor the point of those individual situations, but with each of those players having stated their desire to remain in Chicago, how realistic it is that any of them will? Joc Pederson is a free agent. Craig Kimbrel’s value as a relief pitcher essentially deteriorates when you’re not ever in a situation to deploy him. You have a handful of relievers that have pitched above their paygrade for much of the year. Of that handful of players, how many are suiting up for a new team by the end of July? The answer seems to be increasing exponentially at this point.
But it goes far beyond who stays and who goes at the trade deadline. Because once you move guys, somebody has to step into those spots. Are the Cubs content to continue to roll out the Eric Sogards of the world when even their top position prospects are at least a year or two away? Given that this reluctance to meaningfully add to the roster will likely carry over, regardless of what manifests at the deadline. You also have a starting staff that has been an unrelenting disaster. Do you move on from the likes of Zach Davies or Jake Arrieta and see what Justin Steele, when healthy, or Keegan Thompson might do out of the gate?
It’s...messy. And I wish I had the capability of more nuance to dive deep here on the mountain of uncertainty facing the organization. The organization itself might lack it as well. When Theo Epstein took over, there was a combination of tact and candor that illustrated a legitimate plan. You knew what the short and long-term strategy was. With Epstein now departed and his understudy Jed Hoyer in his place, what does the plan become now? Is it to move the players you can and continue to add modestly to the roster until you eventually morph yourself into a small-market ballclub? Well.
Whatever occurs over the next few weeks leading up to the end of July may feature a great deal of movement and turnover. But it also might not indicate what the “plan” might be. There’s definitely a cynical viewpoint that exists as to what that plan is, and it involves...a very ugly outcome that I alluded to above. Overall, it’s a precarious position, but one that the Cubs ultimately brought on themselves as they head into the second half of the season with myriad questions and virtually zero answers.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.