At the current rate, the Cubs may spend the final half of this season hearing one after another whisper, sometimes elevated to a shout, saying, “Ahhhh, wait till last year!” Team president Theo Epstein isn’t willing, however. And Sunday afternoon may have made him even more resolute.
Especially when Jon Lester took the Wrigley Field mound against the Pirates Sunday and set a career precedent by being unable to get out of the first inning—and how. Two defensive errors were horrific enough, but Lester got strafed for six hits, including a grand slam (Francisco Cervelli) and a solo bomb (Andrew McCutchen), and surrendered three walks.
It was even worse than the 11-run beating he took over four innings from the Blue Jays as a 2012 Red Sox, just days before a contingent of Red Sox players demanded a front-office meeting over then-manager Bobby Valentine’s use, misuse, and abuse, a beating Valentine left Lester in to take on a day he had anything but his best stuff.
“I don’t know what to say,” Lester said after Sunday’s demolition finally ended with a 14-3 Pirates rout. “It’s embarrassing. Nothing I can say can justify or give you a reason behind today.” That may be a polite way to put it for a pitcher who needed 53 pitches to get two outs. But it was also too telling of the Cubs’ season thus far that half number one should end with that kind of embarrassment.
The 2017 Cubs allowing 80 first inning runs in the first half, compared to 71 all 2016. If first impressions are the most important impressions, this year’s Cubs’ first impressions haven’t exactly been impressive—except to the other guys.
That was last year: 53-35 at the All-Star break and looking like a runaway train of a sort. This is today: 43-45 at the break and looking in dire need of a trip to the roundhouse, after allowing their first ten-run inning since early August 1998.
What happened to the World Series defenders whom everyone thought had an excellent chance of marching right back to the Series this year?
* Their starting rotation went from being the only one in 2016 with an ERA under 3.00 to almost two runs worse in this year’s first half. (4.66.) Lester leads the rotation in wins above a replacement-level player—at 1.7.
* Jake Arrieta (4.00+ ERA), the man who thinks basebrawl is just wonderful for the game, has 1.4 WAR, with Kyle Hendricks 0.7, Eddie Butler (the only Cub starter with an ERA under 4.00 so far) 0.6, and John Lackey -0.1—worse than Bartolo Colon when the Braves designated him for assignment.
* Bringing slumping slugger Kyle Schwarber back from his minor league demotion didn’t put a charge into the Cubs, nor did manager Joe Maddon’s team meeting not long before the Pittsburgh bushwhacking.
* Last year, they sent seven to the All-Star Game. This year, they send only one, Wade Davis—a relief pitcher who wasn’t even a Cub last year.
* Having one of the best bullpens in the National League does you three favours when your rotation can barely get you to the on-ramp toward the middle of the game: jack, diddley, and squat.
* Addison Russell’s martial woes seem to have crept into his on-field performance; Miguel Montero foolishly calling Arrieta out publicly got him DFA’d and released (he’s since signed with the Blue Jays), an ignominious finish in Chicago for the guy who had two of the most important bases-loaded plate appearances in Cub history last fall; their disabled list has had plenty including Russell, Hendricks, Lackey, Ben Zobrist, and even Kris Bryant, among others.
* Jason Heyward spent the offseason remodeling his swing after a horrendous 2016 at the plate. He’s still solid with the leather but his improvement at the plate this year has been modest at best.
* Bryant and Anthony Rizzo still hit, though they’ve had their rough spots. Rizzo made a splash when he was inserted into the leadoff slot for a spell or two, but the Cubs’ leadoff position isn’t exactly striking fear into the hearts of enemy pitchers, a telling indication that maybe not opening the vault for Dexter Fowler hurt more than anyone wanted to admit for a good while.
* Enough evidence seems to appear that suggests the 2016 run and triumph just plain fatigued the club. And, the pitchers. Add his postseason workload and Lester threw 238.1 innings in 2016. Maybe it isn’t that surprising that his ERA has swollen by almost two full runs this year. Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, and Lackey have all lost velocity this year but none of them seem aware enough of it to begin pitching with their minds.
“When things aren’t going well, it’s important that we take responsibility and take accountability and take some of the load off the players,” Epstein told CBS’s Spiegel and Parkins Show. “I am responsible for this team being under .500. That’s the bottom line.”
It’s admirable that Epstein holds himself accountable. But what will he do as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches. He’s already said publicly that he isn’t inclined to swing a big trade or even a slightly lesser one.
But he’s also aware enough that letting Fowler walk to St. Louis and letting Jason Hammel walk in favour of now-injured Brett Anderson left a gaping hole in the number five slot of a rotation already pitching like men old before their time. And the Cubs right now don’t have the depth in the minors for call-ups to step in for the walking gassed just yet.
“To pull ourselves out of it, we just need to play better,” he said emphatically. “Guys need to continue the growth they’ve shown in previous years and get ourselves out of some of the disappointing performances that we’ve had so far. It’s as simple as that. The answer is not going to be with some crazy trades.
“The bottom line is when you have guys that aren’t performing well, if you start trading core guys when their value is down because they’re not performing well, you can compound a bad first half of the season and make dramatic long-term organization-questioning decisions, and that’s not what we want to do,” he continued. “I’m trying to get the emphasis off July 31 and the emphasis on what we can all do collectively to get this group to play up to its potential. And I think we will.”
Four days off for the All-Star break is only short relief. The Cubs need it for the longer haul. They may play in a weak division this season, but they can’t play the rest of the way against NL Central opponents alone, and the rest of the league isn’t exactly crawling with exclusive pushovers.
They pick up 14 July against an Orioles club that isn’t exactly beating down the American League East, go from there to the rebuilding Braves and the likewise struggling Cardinals. In fact, the Cubs spend the rest of the season mostly facing opposition that isn’t inspiring terror this year.
Oh, sure, they have a set each with the surprising Brewers and the as-usual Nationals in the coming weeks, not to mention two with the just-as-surprising Diamondbacks. This may be the time for the Cubs to show what they’re still made of; or, what they’re re-made of, assuming Epstein goes against his public remarks and has a move or two to pull by the end of July.
Because the last thing anyone in Cub Country wants to hear, never mind say, and the first thing any and all detractors can’t wait to say, never mind hear, is, “Ahhhh, wait till last year.”