What we learned about the 2023 Cubs in the first half
The conclusion of Saturday’s game marked the exact halfway point in the 2023 season for the Cubs.
They finished the first part of the schedule with a 38-43 record, 5 games below .500 but only 5 games out of 1st place in the National League Central. (With another loss on Sunday and wins by Cincinnati and Milwaukee, the Cubs fell to 6 games back.)
It’s been a bit of a roller coaster for the Cubs so far this year. They were 14-13 in March/April and 14-11 in June but a tough month of May (10-18) drags the overall record down.
The peripheral numbers indicate the Cubs should have a better record than they do, as their +24 run differential is by far the best in the division (and the 5th best mark in the National League).
“I love our team,” Marcus Stroman said. “I feel like things haven’t gone our way at all. But the commitment and the drive and the attention to detail is there. It’s just one of those things where we haven’t really clicked and we haven’t gotten on a roll.
“Hopefully we can come out in the second half — or even these next games we have leading up to the break — hopefully we catch fire and hopefully one win after another starts to kind of roll and we have clumps of big winning streaks.
“The division’s wide open. It’s there for the taking from anybody’s perspective. I feel like with this group of guys, if we get hot, we could be right there.”
As the Cubs move into the second half of the season and the All-Star Break approaches, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about the team so far.
The rotation is the backbone
This Cubs team is hanging around because of the rotation — plain and simple.
Stroman (9-6, 2.76 ERA) and Justin Steele (9-2, 2.43 ERA) have formed the best 1-2 punch in baseball and both are deserving All-Stars. Kyle Hendricks has been very good since he returned from a shoulder injury and Drew Smyly has been a solid presence.
The Cubs’ 3.95 rotation ERA ranks 6th in baseball and 2nd in the National League behind only the Atlanta Braves.
And that’s with the top signing of the offseason — Jameson Taillon — putting up a 6.90 ERA in the first half.
“I love our staff,” Stroman said. “I talked about our staff earlier in the year and people were doubting us. I said, ‘just watch.’ You see how it’s panned out.”
If the Cubs are going to make a run at the division and prove over the next month that Jed Hoyer’s front office should be buyers at the trade deadline, the rotation will be a major reason why.
“I think starting pitching is the key to any playoff team,” Stroman said. “You need to have legit starters who can go deep into games in order to have a playoff run. We have that.”
The lineup hinges on clutch hitting
Coming into the season, the Cubs offense wasn’t built to be among the league leaders in home runs.
Christopher Morel’s call-up in May injected some power into the lineup (15 homers) but otherwise the Cubs know what they are on offense.
“We’re not going to slug you to death,” David Ross said. “I don’t think we’re that type of offense. We’re gonna have to get key hits, take our walks and get timely hits.”
The Cubs have done well to get on base, ranking 5th in the NL with a .327 team on-base percentage. But they rank 9th in slugging percentage (.400) and homers (89).
When the Cubs offense is going well, they’re spraying hits all over the field and coming through with runners in scoring position (as they proved with an epic 9th inning rally Sunday). But when they’re not able to get those clutch hits, it can lead to offensive lulls.
The bullpen is rounding into form
The Cubs’ relief corps struggled in May, posting a 5.19 ERA that ranked 26th in baseball.
But they righted the ship in a huge way in June with a 2.65 ERA that was tied for 3rd in MLB.
Ross has found the right roles in the bullpen as Adbert Alzolay and Mark Leiter Jr. have settled into high-leverage spots with Alzolay as the closer and Leiter as a weapon against left-handed hitters as well as righties.
Julian Merryweather and Michael Fulmer each got out to a slow start to the season but have come on strong of late and are serving as dominant bridge arms to get from the strong rotation to Leiter and Alzolay at the back end.
The Cubs will likely be without Brandon Hughes (knee) for the rest of the season so they very well could be in the market for left-handed relief help if they buy at the deadline.
The Swanson-Hoerner connection is the real deal
When the Cubs signed Dansby Swanson over the winter, it created an instant buzz about the potential for an elite defense up the middle with Nico Hoerner switching to second base.
The double play tandem has been exactly as advertised as both could find their way into the Gold Glove conversation at their respective positions.
Hoerner has posted 6 Defensive Runs Saved at second base while Swanson has 10 DRS at shortstop.
Kyle Hendricks has a lot left in the tank
Nobody — not even the Cubs — knew what to expect from Hendricks this season.
The 33-year-old was coming off a major shoulder injury and carried a 4.78 ERA in 48 starts between the 2021-22 seasons.
The Cubs took the conservative approach with Hendricks this season, allowing him a long runway to build back up and return to the big leagues. That has proven to be the absolute right call.
Hendricks looks like “The Professor” of old with a sparkling 2.81 ERA and 0.96 WHIP through his first 7 starts of the year.
If he can continue that success, it is a huge development not only for this season but also for 2024 as the Cubs have a $16 million option on the last remaining player from the 2016 World Series team.
The Cubs are confident their best baseball is ahead of them
Cubs have the 5th-easiest schedule in baseball after the All-Star Break while the Brewers and Reds both have significantly harder schedules.
Four of the Cubs’ first five opponents in the second half are at .500 or below and the only team above .500 is the 43-42 Red Sox. The Cubs still have 10 games left against the bottom three teams in the weak AL Central (Tigers, White Sox, Royals) and 17 games remaining against the three worst teams in the NL (Cardinals, Rockies, Nationals).
The trade deadline will inevitably change things in the schedule, as well. All the teams listed above (except for maybe the Red Sox) will likely be sellers and more of the Cubs’ second-half opponents could find themselves trading away talented players (Mets? Pirates?).
“You look back at the last two years, that’s obviously not where you want to be,” Hoerner said. “So the bulk of my career playing has been outside of the pennant race, division races, all that. That’s where you want to be. You want to have a chance. You want to be acquiring players at the deadline. You want to be on that end of it. You want to be pushing.
“I feel like we’re a team that has our best baseball ahead of us and continuing to build on some good play recently.”
All that said, we still don’t know what direction the Cubs front office will take at the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
The Cubs put together an impressive 11-3 stretch from June 9-25 that included the trip to London. They returned home Tuesday to start a 13-game stretch leading into the All-Star Break that Ross admitted was “very important.”
The Cubs wound up winning just 1 of their 6 games on the homestand against the Phillies and Guardians as they were unable to carry the momentum over.
The Cubs now go on the road for a crucial 4-game set against the Brewers in Milwaukee followed by a 3-game series in New York against the Yankees before the All-Star Break.
“We’re playing for a goal beyond just playing 162,” GM Carter Hawkins said early in the homestand. “We want to play a lot more than that. To know that there’s a good chance that we’re gonna be in contention going into the end of the year, that’s definitely exciting.”