The Cubs are entering a very crucial part of the season. They’ve wrapped up one of the tougher stretches of play that they’ll likely face all season, and despite entering Tuesday on a five-game losing skid, things aren’t as bad as they appear. Yes, the losing stretch exposed some of their holes, but that may turn out to be a good thing. If they can stay afloat through the All-Star break as the team gets healthy, these recent missteps could help guide the front office as they decide what weaknesses need to be addressed and in what way—via trade, just getting healthy, or by supplementing the roster through the minor leagues.
“Any time you can improve from within, that’s the best and most efficient way to get better,” Theo Epstein told reporters a few days before his team started its current losing stretch. “You can’t always count on that, but if you can improve from within—and we know we have a manager and coaching staff that help our players relax and play their best, so we can continue developing in the big leagues. That’s always beneficial to improve the organization from within. It doesn’t mean you stop considering what may help us improve from the outside.”
Some of that ‘improve(ment) from within’ that Epstein was referring to, among others, include the likes of Neil Ramirez, who returned to action on Sunday, and Jorge Soler, who is in the midst of a rehab stint in Iowa and could return as early as Friday when the Cubs start a stretch of 10 straight at home prior to the All-Star break.
As Epstein mentioned while talking with reporters, the Cubs have essentially had their entire bench wiped out for one reason or another. Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt have missed majority of the season due to injuries. Arismendy Alcantara proved ineffective in the majors and may not return until the organization is convinced he won’t be exposed by big-league pitching. Chris Denorfia missed a significant portion of the early part of the season, and upon his return, he’s been thrust into a starting role due to Soler’s absence, which has revealed him for the player he is: a very useful fourth outfielder who will prove to struggle with regular playing time.
The return of Soler will push Denorfia to the bench, strengthening that unit significantly, while also making one of Matt Szczur or Mike Baxter a fifth outfielder, rather than a name we see penciled into the lineup on a frequent basis. The infield depth is a little more unclear, as Javier Baez’s injury has muddied up what appeared to be a possible strength when the season began. It looks as though Alcantara has yet to gain the trust of those who matter, with clear holes in his game continually being displayed when with the big-league club; when and if that changes remains to be seen. Olt has value, but whether he has a role with this team is yet to be determined.
Regardless, the Cubs bench is something that can be fixed with a little health, and with the return of Ramirez, the bullpen doesn’t appear to be as pressing of a need (though an upgrade is still a possibility, but we’ll get a clearer idea of how essential that is once Rafael Soriano arrives stateside and is tossing against live competition). The talk of late has focused on improving the starting pitching, with Epstein being clear that that’s an area they’ve zoned in on. Even without Tsuyoshi Wada’s injury putting Donn Roach in the rotation, it’s clear that acquiring a starting pitcher seems like an obvious choice. Jacob Turner was recently shutdown and the only realistic options outside of Wada and Roach are Dallas Beeler and Eric Jokisch. With the Cubs having playoff aspirations, that’s certainly not going to cut it.
But over the last seven games, another weakness has been uncovered: the offense.