What the Cubs overcame in 2016 might be nothing compared to the uphill task ahead this season. The 108 years of curses and angst they finally put behind them in winning the 2016 World Series will be a tough act to repeat after the hole they have dug for themselves in the opening three months of this season.
The Cubs head into the All-Star break at 43-45, tied for second in the NL Central with the Cardinals and five-and-a-half games behind the division-leading Brewers. Last year at this time the Cubs were 53-35, seven games ahead of the Cardinals with fans already talking about the playoff pitching rotation.
What a difference Dexter Fowler and solid starting pitching make. The 2016 Cubs had 10 streaks of four or more wins. This year’s team has had two so far.
While the Brewers aren’t exactly the ’27 Yankees — or even the ’16 Cubs — history says there should be concern for these ‘16.5 Cubbies.
Since 1996 only four teams under .500 at the All-Star break have made it to the postseason.
The 1997 Astros and 2003 Twins were both eliminated in the first round.
More recently, the 2013 Dodgers suffered through early-season injuries and limped into the All-Star break at 44-45. But with players getting healthy, the emergence of rookie Yasiel Puig and the one-two punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, the Dodgers closed with a 48-25 record and lost to the Cardinals in the NLCS.
The 2015 Blue Jays were also a game under .500 heading into the All-Star break, before David Price arrived from the Tigers. The left-handed ace went 9-1, lifting the Jays to a 48-23 record after the break and an AL East Division title. The Jays lost to the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals in the ALCS.
Though nothing like the 2013 Dodgers — 12 players on the DL before All-Star Game — the Cubs have been hit with some key injuries in the first half. Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Hendricks, Brett Anderson and John Lackey have all spent time on the DL.
But it’s really been the performances of the healthy players that have put the Cubs in a tough spot. Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are pitching well below their 2016 levels.
Arrieta’s 4.35 ERA is well above last year’s 3.10 and far from his 1.77 Cy Young numbers in 2015. Meanwhile, Lester at 4.25 is almost two runs above last season’s mark of 2.44.
While everyone is wondering if the Cubs could use some outside help before the July 31 trade deadline, team president Theo Epstein believes they have enough.
“Look, if we can improve the club through trade, we will,” Epstein said recently. “But our biggest fixes are inside the clubhouse. This is a team that’s largely the same club that won 200 games, averaged 100 wins a year over the last two years.
“There’s not a player that we realistically can bring in from the outside that’s going to spur us to play at that level.
“We’re going to get to a point of playing at that level because of the guys who are here. And of course, we’re going to work hard and do what we can for the club. It might happen. It may not happen. But the biggest fixes rest in the talented players that we have.”
One thing the Cubs do seem to have in their favor is their remaining schedule. They still get to go head to head with the Brewers 10 times. And, of the 64 other games, 53 are against teams with a losing record — like the Cubs.