The 2016 season was magical for the Chicago Cubs, who reversed more than a hundred years of misfortune, winning the World Series in seven games. The 2017 season, however, has been the opposite. Chicago entered the year with sky-high expectations, entertaining notions of a World Series repeat. But instead of dominating another regular season, the Cubs struggled out of the gate, and their record of 34-34 (as of Sunday evening) is less than impressive. The team’s one saving grace has been a lackluster NL Central Division. The Cubs are luckily only 2.5 games behind the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. There is still time to change the team’s fate, but the club needs to take action soon.
Chicago has struggled at both hitting and pitching, with the majority of the team severely underperforming preseason projections. The Cubs collectively have a batting average of .236 and an OPS of .740, far below last year’s marks of .256 and .772. Kyle Schwarber has been the main scapegoat, hitting only .174 with a .679 OPS and accumulating -0.2 WARP, on his way to being dropped from the leadoff spot to the bottom part of the lineup. Addison Russell (.220 BA/ .681 OPS) and Ben Zobrist (.223 BA/ .715 OPS) have floundered as well. Joe Madden has adjusted the lineup in increasingly desperate ways, recently moving Anthony Rizzo into the leadoff hole and rookie Ian Happ into the second spot, trying to heat up the Cubs bats. All these moves, however, have been met with varying levels of mediocrity.
The pitching staff has been an immense disappointment too. Jon Lester has the lowest ERA among the starting rotation—3.89—when all five Chicago starters bested that number last season. Jake Arrieta and John Lackey have been awful this year, with ERAs of 4.64 and 4.98 respectively, continuing their declines from fantastic 2015 seasons. Brett Anderson, signed in the offseason and expected to be the fifth starter, was pounded in six starts before heading to a lengthy disabled list stay with back issues. Eddie Butler, the new number five starter, has been unimpressive, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of only 1.17. His career ERA of 6.12 foretells an ominous future.
So what can the Cubs do to jumpstart their floundering 2017 campaign? Trades are a natural place to look, and several pieces could be in the discussion. The Cubs have been mentioned as a good fit for Rays pitcher Chris Archer, who would bring much-needed stability to Chicago’s rotation. The righty has logged consecutive seasons of 200+ innings and 230+ strikeouts for Tampa Bay, and his 2017 numbers, a 3.75 ERA and 11.1 K/9, would make him the instant ace of Chicago’s staff. It would mean a triumphant return to the Cubs organization for Archer, who was traded to the Rays as part of the ill-fated Matt Garza trade. Acquiring Archer would mean parting with at least one of Chicago’s young studs, likely Kyle Scwarber, Ian Happ, or Javy Baez. Theo Epstein loves Schwarber for his confident attitude and power bat, and has been loath to part with him in the past. But if a package around Happ or Baez is not enough for the Rays to deal Archer, it may be time to rethink Schwarber’s—and his career .757 OPS—place in a Cubs uniform.
There have been whispers that Chicago will be looking at Christian Yelich. The Marlins outfielder would be perfect for the Cubs lineup. Yelich has the on-base skills the Cubs so desperately need. With a career OBP of .366, Yelich could fill the hole caused by Dexter Fowler’s exit. Fowler was a dependable leadoff hitter, and the Cubs relied on him to get the offense going. The team went 80-38 last season with Fowler in the lineup, but only 23-20 without him. The leadoff spot has been a revolving door throughout the 2017 season, and Cubs #1 hitters have combined for only a .315 OBP, a number bolstered by Anthony Rizzo’s recent success. Yelich would bring normality to Chicago’s offense, allowing Bryant and Rizzo to slide back into their customary #2 and #3 slots.
The Cubs will also be in the mix for pitchers Alex Cobb and Jeff Samardzija come trade deadline time, but these options are far less inspiring. Cobb is three years and a Tommy John surgery away from his peak, and is nothing more than a league-average pitcher at this point in his career. While Cobb could fit in as Chicago’s #5 starter, the Cubs would be better served by putting together a package for an Archer trade first. Samardzija, meanwhile, became a source of ire at times for Cubs fans during Chicago’s rebuilding process, as the righty’s numbers never caught up to his explosive stuff on the mound. While the Cubs could certainly use Samardzija (he is better than Eddie Butler at least), the question must be asked whether it is worth giving up Happ, Baez, or a similar young stud for a 32-year-old up and down pitcher.
However the Cubs decide to move forward, they must not stand pat. Chances to repeat a championship are few and far between. After all, this is Chicago’s first opportunity to do so since 1908. If the Cubs don’t rapidly improve, a postseason appearance, let alone a championship repeat, may just slip through their fingers.
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