The Cubs are bad, but they’re also not the Cubs

It’s July, and the defending World Series champions have been hovering around .500 the entire season. Many things are contributing to the utterly disappointing championship hangover we’re witnessing this year. So, what gives?

Their rotation is a disaster, and their much-vaunted lineup of young studs has been middling, at best. They’ve been hurt and, although they’ve avoided catastrophic injuries, it’s added an extra layer of strain to an already struggling roster. With that in mind, it’s important to point out that, yes, the Cubs have been bad – but, in many ways, this is not the Cubs.

Kyle Schwarber is in AAA, Kyle Hendricks is hurt, Jason Heyward is hurt, Ben Zobrist is hurt, Addison Russell is nursing a season-long shoulder injury, and Kris Bryant just rolled his ankle catching a pop-up. Miguel Montero was DFA’d because of a clubhouse rift (which he created). John Lackey hasn’t been the innings-eating, upper-threes ERA guy he’s built a career on. Jake Arrieta has been a far cry from his 2016 season (which was already much worse than his 2015 Cy Young campaign). Brett Anderson Brett Andersoned, and, to top it all off, they’re trying to win ballgames with a slightly above-average spring training roster.

Let’s take a look at some of the current crop of youngsters who are being tasked with reviving the Cubs’ comatose season.

Eddie Butler, SP

When the Cubs traded James Farris for Eddie Butler, the intent was to acquire a talented starting pitcher who could try to work out a few of the issues that were keeping him from being a successful major leaguer. He was never supposed to be a staple of the rotation this season, yet here we are. To his credit, with a 3.71 ERA, Butler has been more than formidable. However, his 4.28 FIP and 5.27 xFIP suggest that he’s been more lucky than good.

Victor Caratini, C

As a consensus Top 15-ish Cubs prospect coming into the season, it’s not like Caratini came out of nowhere. He had a .923 OPS in Iowa before getting the call to replace Montero. Caratini is currently tasked with being the backup catcher, behind Willson Contreras. His bat is probably already above-average for a second catcher, but there are plenty of questions about his defensive ability. Drafted as a 3B in 2013, he’s only had a few seasons to become acclimated behind the dish. It’s likely that the Cubs will make a trade for a veteran backup before the deadline, but the job is his for now.

Jeimer Candelario, 3B

Blocked at third and first by Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, respectively, Jeimer Candelario has always been destined to be a trade chip for Chicago. Thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness, Candelario will now have an extended audition in the majors to showcase his bat for potential trade suitors. He’s been largely unimpressive as a fill-in, albeit in an incredibly small sample size. Before his call-up, he was batting .274/.366/.520 with 9 HR, 31 BB, and 59 Ks. His bat is legitimate but hasn’t been good enough to help cure the Cubs offensive woes.

Mark Zagunis, OF

Mark Zagunis, the Cubs #5 prospect according to MLB.com, was most likely to be called up in September so he could get a taste of major league pitching. Like the others in this article, Zagunis’ promotion was forced by some pretty unfortunate circumstances. In AAA, he was hitting .249/.399/.474 with 11 HR, 48 BB, and 60 Ks. Similarly to Candelario, his bat is probably close to ready, but he’s still very raw. Expect him to be the first to be sent back down when Heyward or Zobrist returns.

[UPDATE: Mark Zagunis has been optioned back down to AAA, as Ben Zobrist has been activated from the 10-Day DL]

In addition to the four players mentioned here, the Cubs current active roster features Felix Pena, who has been shuffled back and forth from Iowa with fellow reliever Dylan Floro – neither of whom are truly major league talents. Top prospect Ian Happ forced his way into a promotion, and has provided stellar value as a rookie. So, it’s not all bad news.

What does all of this mean? The Cubs are currently without their second best starting pitcher, as well their opening day second baseman, left fielder, right fielder, backup catcher, and fifth starter. They’re trying to compete with a roster that is completely different than what they intended at the start of the season.

That, in combination with unspectacular play from players who were expected to flourish, has doomed Chicago to a disappointing first half. Luckily, the rest of the NL Central is equally anemic, which has kept the Cubs’ playoff hopes alive. The All-Star break can’t come soon enough, as it should give the team the mental break it needs, as well as provide ample time for Heyward, Zobrist, and Hendricks to return.

The Cubs’ 2017 has been a perfect storm of mediocrity, injury, and inconsistency, but every storm eventually runs out of rain.

 

Kory Schulte, Baseline Times 

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