It's June 1. The Cubs are 25-27 and have scored the exact same number of runs as their opponents. Their record is 16th best in baseball (run differential, 14th). The Blue Jays, who started the season 6-17, are now 1/2 game better. Heck, if Anthony Swarzak didn't give up four runs in the 6th on Wednesday, the White Sox would have the same record.
No one—literally no one—expected the Cubs to struggle like this. For my own sanity, I'd like to tackle two questions in this post. One, how did the Cubs get here? Two, what must be done to get the Cubs back on track?
How did we get here?
Like their record indicates, the Cubs have been very average this year. That holds true for both the offense and pitching.
Both have disappointed, but the offense is by far the bigger let down. Many people expected the Cubs pitching staff to struggle (especially older guys like Lackey and Arrieta), but hardly anyone expected a regression for the Cubs offense. The Cubs lineup led the National League in OBP and was 4th in SLG in 2016. Dexter Fowler departed via free agency, David Ross retired, and Jorge Soler was traded, but the rest of the team remained intact. Personally, I expected a full season of Kyle Schwarber and a Jason Heyward improvement to cancel out any loss from the three guys listed above. Heyward has been solid (.265/.333/.419), but Schwarber has been terrible (.174/.297/.355). Unfortunately, Schwarber is not alone.
It is true that the pitching hasn't been good, either. The surprising part of that has been that everyone has remained healthy (Brett Anderson doesn't count). The bullpen has been fantastic; Wade Davis has a 0.76 WHIP in 18 IP and Carl Edwards has a 0.74 WHIP in 19 IP. So, what's going on with the starters? Lots and lots of baserunners. The defense is somewhat to blame here, too.
* Jason Hammel's 2016 WHIP.
To sum it up, the Cubs have been mediocre this year because the offense has regressed—mainly a result of Schwaber and Russell—in addition to every starting pitcher giving up way more baserunners than 2016.
What must be done to save this season?
So, can the 2017 Cubs right the ship? Absolutely! There was a reason so many people thought this team could be great. All the young talent that was on display in the World Series is still here. There are two reasons to be optimistic if you're a Cubs fan: 1) You play in the worst division in baseball 2) No one on the team is injured.
However, the roster still needs some work. Here are the five things I think are most critical in rediscovering how to win baseball games.
1. Use your best hitters at the top of the order.
Kyle Schwarber seemed like a safe bet to be a great OBP guy this year—he got on base 10/20 times in the World Series. But, he's just in a funk right now. Personally, I'd go Zobrist-Bryant-Rizzo. Opponents are outscoring the Cubs, on average, 0.92-0.71 in the first inning and 0.57-0.33 in the third inning. Putting your best hitters at the top of the order should help change those numbers and give the starting pitchers more confidence to pitch aggressively.
2. Give Schwarber the Cardinals series off.
Even though I would drop him in the order, I still believe Schwarber is a very important player on this team. To make the playoffs, the Cubs need to get him going. Giving Schwarber this weekend off would allow him to recharge his body and reset his mind. Let him slide back into the lineup in the 6th spot on Monday against the Marlins, a game with much less attention than the three against the Cards.
3. Trade Javier Baez for Sonny Gray.
Is Sonny Gray perfect? No, but neither is Javier Baez. The Cubs desperately need young, dynamic starting pitchers. By trading for Gray, you'd at least be giving yourself a chance. Before Tuesday's start against the Indians, Gray had a 1.07 WHIP in 29.2 IP with 28 strikeouts. He struggled through injuries and poor play in 2016 (5.69 ERA in 117 IP), but was dominant in 2015 (3rd in AL Cy Young). He's also only 27. It would be very hard emotionally to part with Javy—you're talking to the proud owner of a Baez WBC shirsey—but at some point, you have to part with one of the young position players. Plus, Ian Happ can replace some of the defensive versatility. He'll definitely be worse than Javy in the field, but I think Happ has more potential at the plate.
4. Commit to an Albert Almora-Jon Jay platoon in CF.
I can't imagine the stress Joe Maddon has putting together a lineup every night. Every position but first (Rizzo), third (Bryant), and catcher (Contreras/Montero) sees a rotating door of players. I love the defensive versatility the Cubs have assembled, but there are times and seasons when stability is needed. If you committed to Almora/Jay in center, I think that would ease pressure off Schwarber defensively. And it would give Almora more at-bats. If you're not going to give him 400 plate appearances (on pace for 330), he needs to go to Iowa.
5. Prove the haterz wrong.
Since the start of 2015, this team has not done well when they are perceived to be the top dog. They are at their best when the odds are against them. If you recall, the Cubs went 1-9 heading into the All-Star break last year. That was after they started 51-26 and many, including myself, were asking if they could win 117. The 2016 World Series seemed over after the Cubs took Game 2 in Cleveland, only to have the Cubs lose Game 3 and 4 at Wrigley. Even back in 2015, the Cubs struggled with the pressure of being the favorites, getting crushed by the Mets in a four-game NLCS sweep. Let's embrace the role of underdog once again. We're the lovable losers! No one thinks we're any good. It's us against the world.
If you're an anxious Cubs fan like myself, the best thing you can do on Thursday's off-day is relax and breathe in the 2016 World Series victory. Shawshank and Pat Hughes did the trick for me.