Chicago Cubs: 5 Big Concerns That Might Be Here to Stay

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2017

Chicago Cubs: 5 Big Concerns That Might Be Here to Stay

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    Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber.
    Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber.Jon Durr/Getty Images

    Chicago Cubs fans know angst. 

    After enduring a 109-year curse laced with Steve Bartman and that damn billy goat, they know it like a chilly wind on Waveland Avenue or the electric-green relish on a Chicago dog.

    It's in their DNA and no amount of champagne and confetti can erase it.

    Certainly not now, with the Cubbies sitting at 36-35 and looking up at the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.

    Sure, the Brewers hold only a 1.5-game lead over the Cubs; no one is running away with the division. But this wasn't how the story was supposed to unfold for the defending champs.

    Up to now, the most common response has been to give it time. This team is too deep and talented to stay mediocre all season. That's still probably true. We aren't even close to the All-Star break, and the Cubs have won three of their last four.

    Some of Chicago's problems, however, could linger through the heat of summer and into September's postseason push.

    Let's examine five of those problems and why they might be here to stayalong with the familiar North Side angst.

Jake Arrieta's Fatigue

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    Jon Durr/Getty Images

    We've reached the moment where we can say it with confidence: Jake Arrieta isn't right.

    The 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner owns a 4.64 ERA through 14 starts. He hasn't pitched into the seventh inning since April 9, which is the only time he's done it this year. He's surrendered 12 home runs, after giving up 16 last season and only 10 in all of 2015. 

    Most troublingly, his average fastball velocity has dipped from 93.8 mph in 2016 to 91.8 mph, while the hard contact rate against him has jumped from 25.2 percent to 32.4 percent. 

    What gives?

    "As much as we don't want to say that it carries over from season to season, throwing almost 500 innings over the past two years, I think it did have some effect," Arrieta said, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal

    To be precise, the Cubs right-hander has logged 468.1 innings between 2015 and 2016, counting the postseason. His point stands, though; fatigue is real.

    If that is the cause of Arrieta's issues, it doesn't bode well for the remainder of the season. At only one game over .500, Chicago can't afford to give him extensive rest, especially with other members of the rotation struggling (more on that in a moment). 

    Instead, it'll be up to Arrieta and the Cubs training staff and coaches to figure out how to get him right for the stretch run.

    That, or Chicago will have to raid the farm system and go shopping for an ace at the trade deadline. 

Addison Russell's Regression

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    After hitting 21 home runs and making the All-Star team last season, Addison Russell appeared ticketed for stardom.

    So far in 2017, he's hitting .221 with a .674 OPS. He remains a plus defender, with 13 defensive runs saved at shortstop. His bat, however, is headed in the wrong direction.

    He's also the subject of a domestic abuse investigation from Major League Baseball, per ESPN.com, which is a far more serious matter. 

    At just 23 years old, Russell could right the ship on and off the field. For now, he's an offensive drag at a key position dealing with grave allegations. That's not a recipe for a second-half resurgence.

Lackluster John Lackey

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Getting back to the Cubs rotation, John Lackey has decidedly been part of the problem.

    Through 81.1 frames, the 38-year-old owns a 4.98 ERA, while his 5.53 FIP—a stat that accounts for factors beyond a pitcher's control—indicates he's been even worse.

    Yes, he's a noted clubhouse leader. Sure, he's got history with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein dating back to their days with the Boston Red Sox.

    However, as Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune brutally stated: "I love listening to Lackey talk. I hate watching him pitch. Don't make me watch him pitch again, Theo."

    The Cubs don't have elite pitching prospects ready to contribute at the big league level. Expecting a pitcher rounding the bend on 40 to suddenly rediscover his form is folly. That means, as stated, some trade-deadline shopping is in order.

Kyle Schwarber's Struggles

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Let's get this out of the way: Kyle Schwarber's batting average on balls in play is .195. You can employ the bad-luck excuse and no one will laugh you out of the room.

    We can turn to an even nerdier stat, however, to prove Schwarber is having a down year.

    Meet xBA, or expected batting average, which strips away the BABIP noise and gets at what a player's true average should be based on Statcast data. 

    According to Baseball Savant, Schwarber's xBA is .212. That's better than the .171 he's hitting but still pretty lousy.

    He's got real pop, as he displayed with a 467-foot blast June 14 against the New York Mets that cleared the Shea Bridge. He turned 24 in March and has never played a full MLB season.

    As with Russell, there's reason to believe he'll rebound. Whether it'll be in the next couple months is a foggier question.

A Championship Hangover

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    This one is the hardest to quantify, but it's also impossible to ignore.

    The Cubs busted the mother of all title droughts in 2016. They killed the final boss and brought peace to the Second City.

    What to do for an encore? Repeating would be nice, but it's also hard to do.

    Since 1979, only two teams have managed to win two or more consecutive Commissioner's Trophies: the Toronto Blue Jays (1992-1993) and the New York Yankees (1998-2000).

    The Cubs could be the third. Again, they've got the talent to burn through the summer and into October.

    If we're leaning on the data, however, chances are someone else will win the title. 

    Here's what Epstein said in May, per CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney:

    "Our guys have a great mindset. They're a little frustrated, as anyone would be with how we're playing, but they have a lot of heart and they really care. I think they know how good they can be and they want to attain that level. There's no lack of urgency. There's no complacency because we won last year."

    That's an advisable line. Is it true and will it lead to different results? For that, we wait and see.

           

    All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and MLB.com unless otherwise noted.