The good news for the Cubs is that they’re in first place in the NL Central at the All-Star break. The bad news is that the Cubs are hardly playing like a first-place team, with only a 22-29 record over their last 51 games. Chicago holds a half-game lead over second-place Milwaukee and, remarkably, a lead of only 4.5 games over last-place Cincinnati — with so little room for error, the Cubs can’t afford many more struggles.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein has been vocal about his displeasure with his team’s recent performance, and Epstein continued to discuss the subject this weekend with reporters (including ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers and 670 The Score’s Bruce Levine). Subpar defense, fundamental mistakes, and general “sloppiness” continue to be an issue for the team on the field, though Epstein felt these aren’t the sole problems.
“Right now, we are in a collective slump. We are not playing in a way I feel represents who we are,” Epstein said. “It has gone on for a while. So we are all searching for answers. We are looking for every lever we can pull to get the thing going in the right direction.”
Epstein’s remarks earlier this week led to speculation that Joe Maddon’s job could potentially be in jeopardy, though the front office boss stated Saturday that “Joe has been remarkably consistent. I’m not going to sit and say this is about him. I look at it collectively.”
To this end, Epstein also directed blame at himself and the front office as a whole: “Ultimately, everything in baseball operations is my responsibility. If we are not getting the results we wanted, in every meaningful way that ends with me. It is my job. I selected the players and coaches. I selected Joe….If we are underperforming, that is absolutely on me.”
“Front offices can go in slumps. Sometimes you go through Murphy’s law period — everything that can go wrong does go wrong. The same thing can happen with front offices. I believe in this group. I believe in this organization. I think good times are ahead. There are cycles that come and go. The key is not to let the down periods cut at the fabric of the organization.”
The break may well have come at the perfect time for the Cubs, who can use the next few days off to regroup and refocus on the an improved second half of the season. The July 31 trade deadline also looms as a way of shaking up the roster, as while Epstein said the team isn’t yet close to making any moves, the Cubs are “in a proactive stance” about possible deals: “We’re looking for things we can make happen just because we haven’t playing that well for a while now.”
Pitching would seem to be the most obvious areas of need for Chicago, both in the rotation and the bullpen. That said, if Epstein, Maddon and company continue to be dissatisfied with the quality of the position players, there is also room for potential upgrades on that front. While Ben Zobrist wasn’t hitting well before going on the restricted list in May, his possible return could help both second base and left field, as Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber have both underachieved. If the Cubs aren’t certain about Zobrist’s return, they could pursue a similar type of utility player at the deadline who could fill holes on the bench, essentially taking the role earmarked for Zobrist and David Descalso prior to the season.