Chicago Cubs: 5 Big Questions They Must Answer to Get to the Playoffs
The Chicago Cubs are trying to buck a troubling recent trend for reigning World Series winners.
Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated wrote: "In truth, recent history has been unkind to World Series winners. None has repeated as champions since the 1999 Yankees won again in 2000, and in that span, only two other winners—the 2000 Yankees and 2008 Phillies—even returned to the Fall Classic the following year. Just seven out of 16 made the playoffs at all."
This year's Cubs team hasn't been the same runaway freight train we saw during the regular season last year when they won 103 games and finished with a 17.5-game lead in the NL Central standings.
Before they punch their ticket to October, though, some questions need to be answered.
How Will Playing Time Be Distributed When Addison Russell Returns?
It's been a trying season for Addison Russell.
The 23-year-old looked to be on the cusp of stardom after he tallied 21 home runs and 95 RBI last season while playing spectacular defense and racking up a 4.4 WAR to garner some bottom-ballot NL MVP support.
Instead, he's posted a subpar .241/.305/.417 line over 348 plate appearances and injuries have limited him to just 97 games.
Russell has been sidelined since Aug. 2 with plantar fasciitis, and he'll likely be on the shelf for at least a few more weeks after reaggravating the injury during a rehab assignment last week.
In his absence, Javier Baez has taken over as the everyday shortstop, and he posted an .862 OPS with seven home runs and 25 RBI in August while playing stellar defense of his own.
So why are the Cubs so anxious to get Russell back?
Even in a down season offensively, he's still been an asset with the glove, tallying 14 DRS and 6.9 UZR/150 and his return will allow manager Joe Maddon far more flexibility when it comes to filling out his lineup.
Keeping Baez and veteran Ben Zobrist fresh down the stretch will be just as important as anything Russell contributes personally.
Can Jon Lester Return to Front-Line Form?
Jon Lester more than lived up to his $25 million salary last season.
The veteran left-hander went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 197 strikeouts in 202.2 innings to finish second in NL Cy Young voting.
More importantly, he continued that standout performance into October with a 2.02 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and a .209 opponents' batting average in 35.2 innings of work.
The Cubs are going to need that version of Lester if they hope to lock down a postseason spot and make another postseason run.
However, going into Thursday's game the 33-year-old had struggled mightily over the past two months, pitching to a 6.00 ERA and 1.41 WHIP with just five quality starts in his last 10 games.
After a brief stint on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue, he returned to action last Saturday and allowed eight hits and four earned runs in five innings against the Atlanta Braves.
"We found out everything's fine," Lester told reporters. "I felt like the ball was coming out pretty well. Maybe a couple of pitch selections [I'd like] to have back, but we won the game. We're all good. Moving in the right direction."
He built off that outing with six innings of one-run ball against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday and perhaps that can be a jumping-off point for a strong finish.
Can Willson Contreras Return to His Pre-Injury Form?
Willson Contreras came out of the All-Star break on fire before the injury bug struck at the worst possible time.
The 25-year-old hit .311/.380/.700 with 10 home runs and 29 RBI in 23 games to kick off the second half before a right hamstring injury landed him on the disabled list on Aug. 11.
Now he's finally close to returning.
Contreras will make a brief two-game rehab stint with Single-A Myrtle Beach starting Thursday before returning to the active roster, though he'll likely be brought along slowly with Alex Avila swinging it well.
"I'm gonna enjoy the time down there, but I can't wait to get back to the big leagues," Contreras told reporters.
Prior to the injury, Contreras had moved into the cleanup spot in the Chicago lineup.
In his absence, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have moved down a spot to No. 3 and 4 in the lineup, with a number of different hitters penciled into the No. 2 slot.
If Contreras can even come close to returning to the level he was at pre-injury, his return will be a massive boon for the stretch run.
Who Can Be Trusted to Get the Ball to Wade Davis?
The Cubs bullpen is a mess.
Closer Wade Davis has converted 29 of 29 save chances with a 2.23 ERA and 11.5 K/9 and lefty specialist Brian Duensing has been rock solid with a 2.40 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 24 appearances since the All-Star break.
But the rest of the relief corps has been wildly inconsistent in the second half:
- Carl Edwards Jr. (24 G, 3 L, 3 BS, 5.48 ERA, 1.31 WHIP)
- Justin Grimm (12 G, 2 L, 5.79 ERA, 1.64 WHIP)
- Hector Rondon (20 G, 1 BS, 5.89 ERA, 1.58 WHIP)
- Pedro Strop (20 G, 2 L, 1 BS, 3.72 ERA, 1.09 WHIP)
- Koji Uehara (16 G, 1 BS, 6.75 ERA, 1.35 WHIP)
- Justin Wilson (15 G, 1 BS, 5.84 ERA, 2.03 WHIP)
Call-ups Dillon Maples, Felix Pena and Rob Zastryzny have also been hit hard, and it's really become a crapshoot when it comes to bridging the gap from the starter to Davis in the ninth inning.
Manager Joe Maddon believes the bullpen's high walk rate is the biggest culprit.
"If you look at our reliever numbers, we're really good this year," Maddon told reporters. "We're like second in the league. It's just the walks. The walks have hurt us. We do have a tendency to walk and it puts us in a bad spot."
The Cubs are third in the NL with a 3.91 bullpen ERA, but that does little to ease concerns about their ability to protect a lead going forward.
At least a couple guys from that bulleted list will need to show some semblance of consistency.
Will Jake Arrieta Miss Significant Time?
It sounds like Jake Arrieta dodged a bullet with his recent hamstring injury.
"It's better than it could have been," he told reporters. "Seven to 10 days is probably a window that's close. A lot of it is going to have to do with how I feel day-to-day."
Any setback beyond that predicted timetable would be a huge blow for the Cubs.
Fresh off NL Pitcher of the Month honors in August, Arrieta was forced to leave his latest start on Monday after just 2.1 innings of work.
Prior to that game, he had gone 7-2 with a 1.69 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and a .183 opponents' batting average in his last 11 starts, dating back to the start of July.
Luckily, the Cubs have been operating with a six-man rotation, so they won't need to scramble to find a spot starter.
Still, with the NL Central race still too close to call and Arrieta once again looking like an elite-level starter, the Cubs simply can't afford to have him sidelined for any extended period of time.
And with free agency looming, Arrieta has as much riding on his late-season performance as the team does if he hopes to snag the $100 million-plus deal he'll likely be seeking.
At this point, there's no reason to think he'll miss time beyond that seven- to 10-day estimate, but hamstring injuries are notoriously fickle and if he tries to rush back it could lead to other issues.