July 10, 2017

Monday, 10 July:

What a difference a year can make.

Last year at this time the Cubs were swimming in rare waters; they had already pretty much won their division, really. They were so far ahead that all they had to do was play .500 ball the rest of the way.

They were 57-33 at the break. They did add to that lead, of course, winning 103 games over all.

This year is completely different. The team limps -and that’s exactly what’s happening- into the 2017 break 43-45, and not a good, nor promising, 2 games under. They are a complete mediocrity as a baseball club and 4 days rest won’t change that.

For sanity’s sake Sunday’s game will not be discussed. For those who desire such torture you can read up on it elsewhere. It serves zero purpose to analyze a 10 run first inning by Pittsburgh.

It was the baseball gods speaking loudly, and with a week of reflection to think about it.

The local analysis, is, frankly speaking, awful. The media is so not used to a good franchise that they don’t know bad from good. Virtually all of them cry for more starting pitching as if somehow a first rate starter will be available during the season.

You want Justin Verlander? Detroit wanted the Cubs to take all $70 million of his salary AND two top prospects; sources say they wanted either Ian Happ or Eloy Jimenez, or both.  You can’t say ‘no’ fast enough to that.

Sonny Gray would cost as much. No, they will not find plus pitching during a season. Those are offseason acquisitions. As usual, the local take never addresses the position players. For some reason they circle the wagons around them, and excuse their failings.

It’s because they, too, are so used to losing they really don’t understand winning.

The Cub pitching staff isn’t what it used to be. Leading the majors in runs allowed in the first inning is not a nice stat. But other teams have won with staff ERA’s of 4.10, and the team is currently ninth in the majors.

It’s true that the bullpen helps those numbers. But the real problem is a pitiful offense that focuses on the worst aspects of the game. This is the love affair with the home run.

The fans, ignorant as they may be, are besotted by them. That’s forgivable; Cub fans are a passionate but not particularly ‘baseball bright’ lot. They love the ‘fuzzy Cubby’ thing and treat the player much more like ‘Teen Beat’ magazine idols than baseball players.

This is to be expected after losing by design for the better part of a century.

The media should know better. So, too should the announcers, who play to the public’s desire to somehow ‘homer’ their way back to a win. Even the redoubtable Pat Hughes can be heard saying ‘if only Baez and Russell go deep we are back in the game’.

It never happens like that. Home runs that decide games come when you are AHEAD; not when you’re behind, and when Happ and Schwarber went back to back Saturday night and the Cub twitterverse exploded in glee, the baseball gods took due notice.

Those two solo homers were joined by a single; the team lost 4-2 with only 3 hits.

They have been shut out eight times. The stat everyone should be talking about is the 28th ranked offense hitting .239, with their 135 home runs being a standout. They have the most homers of the poor hitting clubs.

With 337 walks they still take their bases on balls and have a respectable .326 OBP. But their problem is their 399 runs scored; good only for 20th in the majors. They get on, but they don’t get in.

That”s because they have too many right handed hackers in the lineup. Any right handed hurler with plus stuff shuts them down, and this happened last year as well. The difference was their pitching was unreal in 2016.

They could be in a scoreless tie in the 6th and then get into the other team’s bullpen. They scored a LOT of runs in the 7th and 8th innings as a result. That’s when Addison Russell would come up with two men on and get a fat fastball to hit.

He had 95 RBI’s but hit only .238. He is currently sitting at .226. But now he has 29 runs batted in, and will be hard pressed to knock in 60. He still can’t hit anything with a spin on it, but that didn’t matter last year.

He was always in a position to succeed. Now he is set up to fail, as is Kris Bryant (.269 with a feeble 38 RBI’s) and the rest of the largely right handed offense. The lineup has stunk all year; Kyle Schwarber should never lead off, Bryant should be in a run producing spot, NOT second.

Joe Maddon takes some of the blame for this. But the team stood pat when it lost it’s 3 most winning players. They did not replace Dexter Fowler, got the catching corps wrong when they decided to keep Montero as a backup, and losing the valuable Travis Wood hurt more than one may think.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made some key errors. They should have traded an Almora or Baez during the offseason for that left handed contact guy with speed, which they need more than any pitcher.

They didn’t. They nibbled at the margins, kept a not very good offense together (they only hit .252 last year) and are now paying the consequences. At least no one is hearing ‘Theo for President’ chants anymore.

What’s the solution?

They need to smell the coffee and remake the team. It will not happen this year, though. Expect them to nibble at the margins; no matter what they tell you about Willson Contreras he’s killing the team right now and should be in AAA learning how to catch.

His mechanics stink. He makes up for it with sheer athleticism. He is too eager to throw and comes up too soon, therefore losing strikes by poor framing. He has more errors and passed balls than any other catcher and is at least partially responsible for the rise in team ERA.

His offense is respectable; .261 with decent power numbers. He could hit 20 homers and knock in 80, which is nice for a receiver, and he does throw out runners. But there is a LOT more to the game than that, and not having a secret weapon like David Ross on the bench hurts.

Alex Avila of Detroit is on their immediate radar. Look for something like that to occur.

Other than that, what you see is what you get.  They will not mortgage the future on a team they don’t see a winner, and one suspects that decision has already been made…