Are the Cubs Contenders?

This season has not gone the way many fans and analysts thought it would go for the 2017 Chicago Cubs. A season removed from winning 103 games and the first World Series for the organization in 108 years, this year’s Cubs look lost on the diamond. Many did not see this coming as they have retained most of the team from last year and because of their continuous hard-working and nearly flawless performance from last season. The 2016 Cubs had a roster that simply dominated all season long. There were very few instances where the Cubs didn’t look like a team who were destined to win the World Series. Not only did they outscore their opponents, but they also held them to a league-low in runs allowed. Chicago led the league in run differential by having a potent offense which scored the third most runs per game (5.0), and an effective pitching staff that gave up the fewest runs per game (3.4).

Despite their unmatched success last season, halfway through this season, the Cubs are still struggling to show what everyone saw in 2016. Overall, they are down in runs scored per game by a half a run and are also allowing half a run more per game. They are also hitting an abysmal .234 with RISP (runners in scoring position), which is good for fifth worst in the Majors. The team batting average has also dropped 16 points from last year to .238, second worst in the league. The other problem with the lineup is that its stars also aren’t producing like they did last season. Kris Bryant is playing nowhere near his potential, Addison Russell is no longer coming up clutch in big situations, and Kyle Schwarber was struggling so much that they had to send him down to AAA. But the offense isn’t alone in its slow season. The pitching has had its fair share of problems as well. In 2016, the Cubs led the league with a 3.15 ERA. This season, they are almost a whole run above that with a 4.04 ERA, and no starter has sported an ERA below 3.69 – something four out of the five starters accomplished last season. Jon Lester has been the only consistent performer for the Cubbies, and that’s not saying a lot as his ERA and WHIP are both up considerable margins from last season.

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From the stats alone, it is clear that the Cubs aren’t as good as they were last year, but what they are truly lacking are the intangibles that we all saw last year. In 2016, every game for the Cubs looked like fun, as though they were little kids just enjoying the game known as America’s pastime. This season, on the other hand, looks like actual work for the Cubs, from the bullpen to the dugout. They don’t have that same spark that they did last year, and they certainly aren’t coming up with the big hits that proved they were a serious contender as they are hitting .219 with 2 outs and RISP.

It is understandable that they haven’t met our expectations – it is extremely difficult to give an encore when you won 103 games the previous season. We were weren’t expecting a lackluster season to follow, though. We are 79 games into the season and Chicago has been hovering around .500 all season long. Just when it looks like the Cubs are back to their 2016 form, they lose a series or a game and go right back to .500. It seems like they can’t find that groove made them so good last season.

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It doesn’t help that the Cubs have been dealing with injuries to key players such as Kris Bryant (ankle), Ben Zobrist (wrist), Jason Heyward (hand) and Kyle Hendricks (hand). All of these players were vital to them in the 2016 campaign, especially Bryant who was last year’s MVP. Even with these guys in the lineup and rotation, it still hasn’t fared much better for the team.

Even though they are far below expectations halfway through this season, there is still hope. The Cubs, being as mediocre as they have been all season, are only one game out of the division lead thanks to a weak Central division this year. They are still very much in the thick of it. If the Cubs can find a way to keep their key players on the field and find the spark that they had last year, Chicago will certainly take this division as they have much more talent on this roster than any of the other four teams in the NL Central. Beyond that though, don’t expect them to go too far. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals have both been playing stellar baseball thus far, and both clubs have top-of-the-line rotations which could easily outduel Chicago at this point in the season. The Cubs need to find what they had last season sooner rather than later if they want any chance of repeating as World Series Champions in 2017.

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