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Whoa, Cubs, Whoa

After winning 103 games and breaking the World Series curse in 2016, Chicago looked like it was on the verge of a dynasty. After 38 games of the 2017 season, Chicago looks … like a mediocre baseball team. Is it time to panic? Or will the talent eventually win out?

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The Chicago Cubs, last seen winning 103 games en route to a World Series title, are 19–19 on May 17 — tied for third place in a not-particularly-imposing National League Central. When I wrote last November that the Cubs could easily repeat even if they did nothing notable in the offseason, I didn’t anticipate this kind of start from the defending champs.

We’ve seen this team, as currently constituted, turn in dominant performance after dominant performance over the past two years, and ugly as the record might look, they’re only 2.5 games out of first place. There’s no Mets-level dysfunction or Rangers-level bullpen crisis. And they’re playing like an average team: They’re fifth in the NL in ERA+ but 11th in OPS+. Their run differential is plus-2, they’re one game under .500 at home but a game over .500 on the road. They’re 7–7 in one-run games and 4–5 in blowouts. Not that strength of schedule should mean a lot to a team widely considered the best in baseball on Opening Day, but there’s no fluky schedule magic either; they’re within two games of .500 against every opponent but the Yankees, who swept the Cubs earlier this month.

The defending champs are just kind of mediocre right now, which isn’t world-changing, but it’s a little disconcerting, like seeing your dad cry. So let’s go through, position by position, and see what the problem is and what — if anything — can be done to fix it.

Catcher

Miguel Montero, relegated to backup status in the last year of his five-year deal, is hitting .327/.345/.519. But Willson Contreras has gotten more than twice as many plate appearances as Montero, and he’s hitting only .226/.293/.396, which is problematic for a player who’s supposed to make his greatest impact with his bat.

Contreras hit .282/.357/.488 last year as a rookie, so his recent track record suggests he’ll climb back up to a league-average offensive line by season’s end, if not above it. Contreras was also a defensive asset last year — 19th in adjusted framing runs out of 77 catchers with 1,000 or more chances — and that’s in only 2,817 chances. If he’d caught the 6,000 or so pitches the league leaders did, and stole strikes at the same rate, he’d have finished in the top five. So far this year, on a full-time starter’s workload, he’s third in adjusted framing runs.

But there’s more to the defensive side of catching than framing. The Cubs have some unique quirks among their pitchers, most notably Kyle Hendricks’s command-based repertoire and Jon Lester’s inability to throw to the bases. The now-retired David Ross became the most famous third-string catcher in baseball history in large part because he’s a good quote, but over a 15-year career he’d also learned how to call a game and manage his pitchers’ egos — skills the 25-year-old Contreras is still learning, having made only 65 MLB starts at catcher.

But Contreras can, and probably will, learn these things with experience, and he does have a track record as a hitter that makes an offensive turnaround look likely.

First Base

· Anthony Rizzo, 2014: .286/.386/.527, 11.9 BB%, 18.8 K%

· Anthony Rizzo, 2015: .278/.387/.512, 11.1 BB%, 15.0 K%

· Anthony Rizzo, 2016: .292/.385/.544, 10.9 BB%, 16.0 K%

· Anthony Rizzo, 2017: .213/.351/.383, 12.9 BB%, 14.0 K%

Rizzo’s pulling the ball more, hitting fewer line drives, and keeping the ball on the deck more now than at any point since 2013, but it’s also mid-May, so this could be a fluke. Rizzo’s been so steady over the past three years that, barring some undisclosed injury, I’d write this off as a slump and expect him to return to form.

Second Base

Javier Báez’s contact rate is down about 8 percentage points from last year, but otherwise this is about what we ought to expect from him after almost 900 big league plate appearances. A couple of clutch hits and some defensive highlights last October haven’t really changed what Báez is: an excellent defensive second baseman with plus power for the position but a propensity to run hot and cold — including his .203/.262/.339 line in April, a tenuous relationship with contact, and no relationship to speak of with walks. Ideally he’ll get the bat on the ball more as the year goes on and boost his average and OBP back to 2016 levels, but this version of Báez is still a pretty good player. Even if he’s a little disappointing, he’s not exactly a problem.

Kris Bryant (Getty Images)
Kris Bryant (Getty Images)

Third Base

Kris Bryant is hitting .299/.401/.547. The worst thing that’s happened to him since he appeared in the majors two years ago is everyone’s realized he looks kind of weird without a hat on, so his place among the most handsome men in baseball is slipping. But his production is not; he’s putting up about the same line that won him the MVP last year.

Shortstop

Addison Russell, a broad-shouldered ex-football player, was a bat-first prospect coming up, which makes it kind of puzzling that he has turned into such a good defensive shortstop, but his bat hasn’t developed more. Russell’s walk rate and batted-ball profile this year are both similar to his 2016 numbers, and he’s actually striking out less, but his OPS+ is down from 97 to 72. I have a much easier time believing that’s a matter of luck or cold weather than his bat backing up that much, so I’d put him in a class with Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber as players who are underperforming now for no obvious reason. Expect him to pick it up as the season goes on.

Left Field

Speaking of Schwarber, he’s unlike Rizzo, Russell, and Jason Heyward, who are all top-notch defenders at their positions, and so if he isn’t hitting, he isn’t providing value. Schwarber’s plate discipline and batted-ball numbers are both in line with what he did as a rookie, but his fly balls are turning into home runs much less frequently than in 2015, which might just be the result of weather effects. Schwarber’s BABIP is also down about 70 points from 2015, which suggests he might just be getting unlucky. The Cubs should hope so, because if Schwarber keeps hitting .179, even with patience and power, he wouldn’t be any good as a bench bat, let alone a starter.

Center Field

Albert Almora’s hitting .262/.319/.393, which is just fine for a good defensive center fielder like him. Jon Jay has a .405 OBP; that’s great. Heyward’s started nine of Chicago’s 38 games in center, which is puzzling, because it’s not like Heyward’s hitting so well that you need to get his bat in the lineup, and he’s certainly not a big defensive upgrade over Almora, at least not in center, nor does he fit into a platoon. If manager Joe Maddon really wanted to platoon the right-handed Almora, he could play Jay in center.

The ideal center-field scenario for the Cubs would involve Almora playing against lefties and in situations that require defense — perhaps specifically to mitigate Schwarber’s lack of range — and Jay playing when the Cubs need a bat in the lineup and/or against right-handed pitchers. If Almora plays an above-average center field and keeps up an 89 OPS+, Jay continues to hit, and Maddon doesn’t do anything weird, like give Heyward significant playing time in center, that’ll work just fine.

Jason Heyward (Getty Images)
Jason Heyward (Getty Images)

Right Field

Finally, a position with not only an actual problem but an obvious cause. First of all, Heyward’s on the shelf with a sprained finger, and was hitting a disappointing but not entirely unexpected .253/.333/.364 when he went down. Heyward was a mess offensively last year, and to some extent, he’s been a mess offensively since 2011, when he tried to play through a persistent shoulder injury and screwed up his swing. He’s still a great defensive corner outfielder, and he’s never been as bad a hitter as his reputation suggests because he’s always been able to get on base, but Heyward being built like Rob Gronkowski makes it extra frustrating that he doesn’t hit for more power. It’s not the kind of production a team would want to pay $28 million a year for, but it’s fine, particularly on a team with as much money and as many bats as the Cubs.

When Heyward’s either been in center or on the bench, Ben Zobrist has started 12 games in right, and he’s posted the same 86 OPS+ with hardly any defensive value there. Unlike some of his mysteriously slumping teammates, Zobrist, who turns 36 next week and has been fighting a back injury, might just be past it. Now that 22-year-old former first-rounder Ian Happ is up in the majors, Zobrist might not even be the best switch-hitter on the Cubs who can play five positions anymore.

Happ is for real. There’s a specific type of second baseman — a former college prospect who gets on base, does a lot of things well but few things spectacularly, and tried out multiple positions in the minor leagues — that Happ could become if he gets playing time there. Chase Utley and Ian Kinsler are the best of that archetype, which also includes Brian Dozier, Jason Kipnis — to whom The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma compared Happ on Monday’s Ringer MLB Show — and a few others, including Zobrist. If Happ can’t hack it at second, he’ll end up in an outfield corner and wind up as a solid line drive hitter, like Michael Conforto, a player I heard Happ compared to when he was in college. If the Cubs had a need in either outfield corner — or at second base if something happened to Báez — they could stick Happ there right now and never look back.

But three things make it difficult to move on from Zobrist: First of all, demoting a three-time All-Star with two World Series rings — and a fresh World Series MVP trophy — for a rookie can upset a clubhouse, even as young and loosey-goosey a clubhouse as Chicago’s. Second, for all the noise about Heyward’s contract, Zobrist still has three years and $45.5 million left on his deal. If the Cubs do decide to cut bait on Zobrist — and there’s no indication so far that they’re dangling him — that kind of contract isn’t as hard to move as it was five years ago, but it’s still a substantial salary to dump. They either wouldn’t get much back for him or, in a worst-case scenario, they’d have to take a loss in terms of prospects just to get him off the books. Third, despite indicators to the contrary, it’s possible that Zobrist isn’t actually completely busted — just that he’s slumping and/or struggling and could bounce back later.

Starting Rotation

Jon Lester’s ERA+ is 120, down from 164 last year, when he finished second in Cy Young voting, but not far off his career average. He’s fine.

Kyle Hendricks has lost 2 miles an hour off his already-pedestrian fastball from last year, but I don’t know how many people thought he’d even repeat his exceptional 2016. Hendricks’s ERA is 3.40, and it’s 1.52 in his past four starts. He’s fine, too.

John Lackey’s lost about a mile an hour off his fastball and added a run to his ERA, but his peripherals look fine. He’s striking out a batter more per nine innings this year than last, but per-inning totals can be deceptive: Pitchers who allow more base runners have more chances to strike out batters. On a per-batter basis, Lackey’s K% is about the same as 2016, still right around a career high. At age 38, even 200 league-average innings from Lackey, at the cost of $16 million, would be a win for the Cubs.

The point about per-inning peripherals also applies to Jake Arrieta, who’s striking out more batters per inning than he did during his Cy Young campaign of 2015, but his K% has gone down two percentage points. Arrieta’s also lost about two miles an hour off his fastball, but that doesn’t explain all of his struggles. Over the past three seasons, including 2017, Arrieta’s struck out about a quarter of the batters he’s faced and allowed line drives on about 20 percent of the balls put in play against him. His pitch mix hasn’t changed wildly year-to-year. His walk rate spiked last year to almost 10 percent but it’s come down to 6.6 in 2017.

What is wildly different this year is Arrieta’s batted-ball profile. In 2015, he was tied for the fourth-highest ground ball rate among 78 qualified starters. In 2016, he was eighth out of 73. This year he’s tied for 67th out of 99.

One of the first great sabermetrics breakthroughs came in the area of defense-independent pitching stats. The idea was that pitchers had very little control over what happened once the ball left the hitter’s bat, thanks to the vagaries of defense and batted-ball luck. This makes some degree of intuitive sense — we’ve seen broken-bat doubles and scalded line-drive double plays depending on minor differences in where the ball was hit. So the story went that most pitchers would, all things being equal, pitch to an opponent BABIP of around .300 and a HR/FB rate of around 10. That’s the theory behind ERA estimators like FIP: to iron out the substantial luck involved in pitching.

In the past decade, though, that’s turned out not to be completely accurate. Some pitchers, it turns out, do have a knack for inducing weak contact, including Arrieta in 2015 and 2016. Pitching into a defense that includes Russell, Báez, Rizzo, and Heyward also helps. But even so, he’s not getting ground balls. Although grounders do have a slightly higher chance of turning into hits in general than fly balls do, giving up more fly balls means fewer double plays, fewer balls sucked up by Russell and Báez, more left to Zobrist and Schwarber, and more extra-base hits.

Inducing ground balls is the whole point of being a sinkerballer, and for whatever reason Arrieta isn’t doing it anymore. That’s problematic. But he’s also getting unlucky — all things being equal, his BABIP should be slightly lower now that he’s allowing more fly balls, but it’s jumped over 100 points, and, despite pitching mostly in the cold so far, his HR/FB rate is double what it was in 2015.

The result is that Arrieta went from allowing the fewest hits per inning in the National League in both 2015 and 2016 to allowing as many hits per inning in 2017 as Jered Weaver did last year. Some of that’s bad luck, but not all of it, and it’s a problem not only for Arrieta as he approaches free agency at the end of the year, but for the Cubs, who are going to need him until then.

Arrieta’s consistency from June 2015 to June 2016 obscures how short his track record really is. We’ve got only about a string of 100 starts, beginning out of nowhere at age 27, where he’s even been good, and maybe only 35, over a 12-month period, where he was truly one of the best pitchers in baseball. That’s more than most pitchers get, but it’s hardly Roger Clemens. We’ve probably seen the best of Arrieta already, and possibly the last of him as a significantly above-average starting pitcher.

The fifth spot in the rotation has also been a problem. Brett Anderson’s hurt again, just like he was in 2016, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010. Former Rockies prospect Eddie Butler (career 6.50 ERA before joining the Cubs this past offseason) is holding down that position right now, though Mike Montgomery, who was groomed as a starter in Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and Seattle but had much greater success out of the bullpen since joining the Cubs, might get a shot if Butler falters.

Frankly, the Cubs were spoiled last year. Having three starters get Cy Young votes is impressive enough, but I prefer to put it this way: In 2016, five different Chicago starters made at least 29 starts and posted at least a league-average ERA+ (including the departed Jason Hammel), with four of them beating 120. That level of health and performance across the rotation just doesn’t happen anymore, and the Cubs were probably more likely to repeat as world champions than to have such a stable rotation again. Having to pitch around an untrustworthy fifth starter isn’t fun, but it also isn’t a crisis; it’s just something normal clubs have to deal with.

Bullpen

Not a problem. Wade Davis hasn’t given up an earned run, Koji Uehara’s back to his 2014 form, and Carl Edwards is having the best two months of his life. Montgomery took losses in his first two appearances, but he’s allowed one earned run in 22 innings since. If anything, the Cubs are outperforming expectations here.

Manager

In addition to the Happ comp, Sahadev said something else on the podcast that stuck with me: The Cubs have so many players whose talent demands playing time that Maddon’s been writing himself into suboptimal defensive lineups in order to keep everyone happy.

That’s an interesting way to think about it, because the Cubs’ positional flexibility should be a strength. Bryant, Báez, Happ, Contreras, and Zobrist can all play all over the field, which would come in handy if the Cubs had suffered a long-term injury to a starter, but now, Maddon’s playing so many different lineups (27 different batting orders not including pitchers, and 24 starting defensive alignments in 38 games) that his best groups might not be getting as much run-out.

Then again, every lineup decision involves a trade-off of some kind. Rotating players in and out keeps the reserves happy and the starters fresh, even if the Cubs take a hit in one particular game. When the club’s 103–58, rewriting the lineup every day looks like good man-management, but when the club’s 19–19, it looks like kibitzing. Everything is about results.

Results this underwhelming often warrant a drastic reaction, but there are several reasons the Cubs’ best course of action might be to sit tight and wait for the results to change on their own. The simplest is also the most compelling: Almost this exact group of players, all of them either with enough prospect hype or big league experience to suppress the notion that last season was a fluke, just won 103 games and the World Series. They’ll play better than this because they’re that talented. Plus, the division isn’t lost. With the Cardinals only 2.5 games clear of Maddon and Co., nobody’s really taken advantage of Chicago’s slow start to run away with the Central the way Houston has in the AL West or Washington has in the NL East. Even if the team’s talent level said this was a crisis, the standings don’t.

This isn’t a good team with one big hole. The problem is that the Cubs’ lineup is underperforming at six or seven different spots, and many of those players ought to rebound sooner or later. The only place where a big trade might help would be in the rotation: to plug the hole Anderson left and provide a backup plan in case Arrieta isn’t good enough come October to make a playoff start.

A real killer starting pitcher would likely take a package that starts with either Eloy Jimenez — a 20-year-old power-hitting outfielder and consensus top-15 global prospect to whom the Cubs are quite attached — or an existing contributor like Happ, Báez, or Schwarber. The Cubs could go this route, particularly considering how deep their lineup goes and how young their core is, but I don’t know exactly what combination of standings, trade package, and pitcher would make them want to.

Even with all the disappointing hitting performances and the disconcerting standings, the Cubs are still odds-on favorites to win the division: 57.5 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus, down from 66.6 at the start of the year.

There might come a time when the race has gotten away from the Cubs to an extent that it makes sense to trade Jimenez or Happ for pitching help, but that time is still far enough off that the Cubs are best served waiting for the problem to fix itself.