The Cubs' Recent Surge Has Them Back in the Thick of a Tight NL Central Race
- After entering the All-Star Break below .500, the Cubs have raced back to within a game of the NL Central lead. The division race promises to be a thriller.
When the All-Star break arrived, the Cubs were just 43–45, having finished the first half on a 4–8 skid, and they trailed the upstart Brewers in the NL Central race by 5 1/2 games, their largest deficit of the season. Relative to last year's storybook season, the reigning champions had regressed in every phase of the game save for their bullpen; the symbolism of closer Wade Davis serving as the team's sole All-Star representative was almost too on-the-nose. Combined with the Brewers' 2–5 bellyflop to start the second half, the Cubs’ 6–0 run has trimmed the division lead to a single game coming into Friday, and a change atop the standings feels inevitable.
After allowing exactly as many runs as they had scored in the first half (399, 4.53 per game), the Cubs outscored the Orioles and Braves—both of whom had been meandering around .500—in their two three-game series by a margin of 44–17. Their offense scored eight or more runs in four of those six games while batting a collective .316/.377/.609, and suddenly there's hope that a unit which for most of the first half had received above-average production only from Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and part-timer Ian Happ can return to being a juggernaut.
It's only one week, so small-sample caveats apply, but at the forefront of the latest offensive surge are Javier Baez (10-for-20 with four extra-base hits), Addison Russell (9-for-23 with six extra-base hits), Wilson Contreras (9-for-22 with five extra-base hits ) and Jason Heyward (9-for-21 with three extra-base hits). Along with Kyle Schwarber, the first three of those players are part of the young core that many felt would build upon last year's advances and help fuel their bid for a second championship.
Contreras has hit .380/.436/.700 in July to lift his season OPS+ to 112, and Baez .390/.405/.659 to push his season OPS+ to 104, and both Russell and Heyward have surged closer to average as well. Schwarber had hit just .171/.295/.378, albeit with 12 homers, before being sent for a Triple A refresher course in late June; after two weeks in Iowa, he's gone 6-for-26 with five extra-base hits and five walks, possible signs that he, too, is turning his season around. While neither Rizzo (130 OPS+, down from 145 in 2016) nor reigning NL MVP Bryant (141 down from 148) has quite lived up to last year's lofty standards, both remain among the league's most productive players at their positions overall.
The other side of the ball is just as important, and during the break, the Cubs received a shot in the arm in the form of the crosstown trade with the White Sox that brought Jose Quintana in exchange for a four-prospect package headed by slugging outfielder Eloy Jimenez. The 28-year-old lefty, roughed up for a career-worst 4.49 ERA prior to the deal due to similarly subpar walk and home run rates, made a strong statement in his Cubs debut, striking out 12 Orioles while allowing just three hits without a walk in seven shutout innings. His 83 game score matched his career high, while his whiff total was one shy of doing so.
Quinana's start wasn't the only strong one in this latest run. Excluding Mike Montgomery's 4 1/3-inning, four-run dud in the second half opener, starters Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Montgomery (again) yielded just one run apiece in the other four games. As a unit, the rotation had slipped from last year's MLB-best 2.96 ERA to a 4.66 mark (eighth in the NL) in the first half, accompanied by a 4.50 FIP, with all four returning members (including Kyle Hendricks, currently on a rehab assignment) having declined from their strong 2016 showings. In the six games since, the rotation’s ERA is down to 4.47, and while it's been just one turn through the rotation, it helped erase the bad taste left by Lester's 10-run pummeling in 2/3 of an inning in the team's first-half closer.
Lackey, who served a DL stint for plantar fasciitis just before the break, has now allowed three runs or fewer in four of his last five starts, though both his ERA (5.04) and home run rate (2.2 per nine) remain astronomical. Hendricks, who has missed six weeks due to tendonitis in his right hand, tossed five no-hit innings in his July 17 rehab start for Double A Tennessee and will return to the big league rotation during the July 24-26 series against the White Sox.
Meanwhile, the Cubs' defense, which last year led the majors with a .728 defensive efficiency, 26 points ahead of the next NL team (the Giants) and 41 points better than league average, has shaken off a slow start to rank second in the league (.698), 11 points above average. The staff's BABIP allowed (a close analog to defensive efficiency, and far easier to track by month) was at .294 through the end of May but has dipped to .271 since. At the risk of squinting at more small sample sizes, it's worth noting that the latter period has included less time at the outfield corners for Schwarber (-5 Defensive Runs Saved this year) and Ben Zobrist (-4 DRS in rightfield) and in center for Jon Jay (-3 in that position), with Jay and Hayward at the corners and Happ and Albert Almora Jr. both getting more time in center.
The Quintana deal almost certainly isn't the last that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will pull off before the July 31 deadline. They've explored dealing other starting pitchers such as the Rays' Chris Archer, the Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman and the A's Sonny Gray, all of whom have years of club control remaining, as well as the Rangers' Yu Darvish, a pending free agent. They're believed to be most serious about Gray, who is also being heavily pursued by the Brewers.
The Cubs also need to replace the jettisoned Miguel Montero as the backup catcher behind Contreras; the Tigers' Alex Avila has reportedly been their top target for that spot, but if they're in talks with the Rangers, they could explore acquiring Jonathan Lucroy, who's also a pending free agent. If not one of those two, serviceable backups on also-rans, such as the Giants' Nick Hundley and the Mets' Rene Rivera, should be available as well. The Cubs have also been linked to relievers such as David Phelps (traded from the Marlins to the Mariners on Thursday) and the Padres' Brad Hand; with Davis a pending free agent, it would make sense to pursue the Orioles' Zach Britton, who has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining, but as with the controllable starters, he won't come cheap.
As their pursuits of Gray and relievers such as Hand, Pat Neshek, Addison Reed and Justin Wilson show, the Brewers aren't going to stand pat at the deadline even if they are surprise contenders. It will take more than just one week of differing fortunes to end the NL Central race—particularly with both the Pirates (48–48, three games out) and Cardinals (46–49, 4 1/2 out) still kicking. Indeed, the real excitement is just beginning.