- The newly-acquired southpaw joins a rotation that could use a turnaround from two other big names if Chicago is going to make it back to October.
World Series hangovers are not uncommon. In fact, none of the past four defending World Series champions have even reached the postseason.
Few thought a similar fate would befall the Chicago Cubs, however. And yet, just eight months after capping a 103-win regular season with a World Series title that was 108 years in the making and hearing talk of being a burgeoning dynasty, the Cubs enter the second half at just 43-45, 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central. All the champagne in the world can’t explain that hangover.
Still, all is not lost. The 2017 Cubs remain built to win, with an enviable core of star-level players all over the diamond. And in the plush team offices located next door to Wrigley Field, team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have displayed yet again their willingness to make the moves necessary for a return to October. On Thursday, the Cubs swung a trade with the crosstown White Sox for lefthanded starter Jose Quintana, as sure a sign as any that the Cubs can, and intend to, win now.
Like many of his new teammates, Quintana has largely underperformed this season, going 4-8 with a 4.49 ERA. He joins the other four players below as the five whose turnarounds are most essential if Chicago is going to have a chance to defend its title.
First, a word about a few players not listed. Neither third baseman Kris Bryant (.269/.399/.529, 18 home runs) nor first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.259/.386/.508, 20 homers) is the problem here. Shortstop Addison Russell and fellow infielder Javier Baez have not improved at the plate but they remain great with a glove. And while Jake Arriet (4.35 ERA) may never recapture his Cy Young-winning form of 2015, there are other members of the starting rotation whose improvement figures to be more important.
Here are the Chicago Five, presented in alphabetical order:
Hendricks did his best Greg Maddux impression last year, and it nearly won him the NL Cy Young Award. He went 16-8, led the majors in ERA (2.13) and posted a stellar 0.98 WHIP, all of which helped him finish third behind Max Scherzer and teammate Jon Lester in the Cy Young voting.
Hendricks has crashed back to earth this season. He has a 4.09 ERA, a 4.51 FIP and a 1.20 WHIP in 61 2/3 innings, and he hasn’t pitched since June 4 because of tendinitis in his right hand. Before hitting the DL, his strikeout rate was down, while his walk and hard-contact rates were up. He’s expected to return to the rotation shortly after the break, as early as this weekend in Baltimore. Inconsistency in the rotation has been the Cubs' biggest problem this season, and Hendricks was the team’s most reliable starter a year ago. They need him to trend strongly back in that direction over the next two and a half months.
While his stats—19 wins, a 2.44 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and 197 strikeouts in 202 2/3 innings—were outstanding, it was Lester's ability to stabilize the entire staff that made him the team's ace a year ago. He has regressed badly this season, racking up a 4.25 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP in 108 innings so far. He's been at his worst right at the start of games, posting a 7.71 ERA in the first inning this season. High pitch counts early in games have been the norm for him, as he has pitched into the seventh inning in just six of his 19 outings (31.6%). Last year, he made it through seven in 20 of 32 starts (62.5). Quintana is the shiny new toy, and Arrieta won the Cy Young two years ago, but Lester is still the ace of this staff. He needs to pitch like it.
Quintana joins a rotation in which three pitchers—Arrieta, Hendricks and Lester—have been worse than they were last season, and a fourth, John Lackey, has been much worse. The team underestimated just how much they would miss Jason Hammel holding down the backend of the rotation, leading to the underwhelming trio of Brett Anderson, Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery combining for a 5.23 ERA in 23 starts.
Quintana changes that. He has thrown at least 200 innings with no worse than a 3.51 ERA or 1.27 WHIP for four straight seasons. After a rough start to the 2017 campaign, Quintana has a 2.70 ERA and 1.20 WHIP with 46 strikeouts across his last seven starts. Not only is his presence huge for what he brings to the table directly, he also gives Maddon the sort of flexibility all managers desire. Lackey can now become the No. 5 starter, Montgomery moves back to the bullpen (where he can be both a long man and an effective option to get lefties out in high-leverage spots) and Butler could do the same from the right side.
Simply put, adding Quintana has changed the equation for the 2017 Cubs.
Schwarber has arguably been the most disappointing player in baseball this season. After he made a tremendous comeback from an ACL injury that cost him all but the first two games of last season to play a starring role in the World Series, he was expected to play a huge role this year. Yet almost nothing has gone right for him. The experiment of having him replace Dexter Fowler in the leadoff spot was an unmitigated disaster, and he was so bad overall that he earned a brief demotion to Triple A.
All told, Schwarber is hitting .178/.300/.394 in 277 plate appearances. He hasn’t made any noticeable strides from his promising rookie year of 2015. In fact, his 28.2% strikeout rate is identical to that season. All he has done this year is make far more soft contact, which goes a long way toward explaining his .200 BABIP. If you’re looking for a silver lining, he has shown his usual impressive eye and power, posting a 13.7% walk rate and .216 isolated slugging percentage. Those can be the foundations of his future success, but the Cubs need that to happen immediately.
Eight months ago, Zobrist was the toast of Chicago after delivering the go-ahead double in the 10th inning of Game 7 against the Indians and winning the World Series MVP award. He enters the second half as one of the least productive players in baseball, carrying a .214/.307/.367 slash line. Injuries hampered him during much of the first half, so the team has to be hopeful that getting him back to 100% will help him hit the way he did last year when he was a fixture in the cleanup spot for one of the best offenses in baseball. The Cubs have lacked stability at the top of the order after letting Fowler leave in free agency last offseason, and Zobrist has the skill set to be an effective table setter for Bryant, Rizzo and the rest of the offense. Whether Maddon turns to him at the top of the lineup remains to be seen, but his bat will be critical if the Cubs are going to chase down the Brewers.