Cubs looking to recreate magic from 2016

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AP

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester kicks the mound after Chicago White Sox’s James McCann hit a solo home run during the second inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

There were no champagne celebrations, no camera crews in the locker room. Instead, Anthony Rizzo sat down behind a team backdrop, answering questions via Zoom, as the Chicago Cubs clinched a spot in the postseason.

Despite reaching the postseason for the fifth time in six years, the “young core” of the Cubs are not so young anymore. Coupled with old habits rearing their ugly heads once again, the outlook for the Cubs in the postseason is cloudy at best.

The Cubs offense has struggled in the latter half of the season. These woes are nothing new and it is perhaps their biggest question mark heading into October.

“Every facet of this team has had ups and downs throughout the year, but over the last good while, the offense has been dreadful,” said Corey Freedman, director of social media for Cubs Insider. “We know the group has the potential to be better, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the offense go missing with this group. It happens every year and it’s not easy to be confident some of these guys will simply turn it on come playoff time.”

Players like Javier Baez and Kris Byrant, two cornerstones that are integral to the team, have struggled mightily this season.

Baez has an on-base percentage of .239 which is the lowest out of all the starters. His wins above replacement (WAR) stands at 0.7 according to Baseball Reference. Again, one of the lowest on the team and tied for Baez’s lowest since becoming a permanent part of the main roster.

A number Cubs players are posting some of their lowest numbers in their careers. That it is happening all at the same time has to give manager David Ross a cause for concern. The only players who have been consistently offensively have been Jason Heyward and Ian Happ.

“It seems like every hitter has struggled at some point this season with the biggest question marks being the extended slumps of Javy, KB and now Schwarber,” said Sara Sanchez, writer for SB Nation’s Bleed Cubbie Blue blog. “Now that said, this has always been a streaky offense and with Contreras heating up and JHey having his best 60-game stretch in a Cubs uniform, if they were joined by Happ, Rizzo, Javy, and KB this team can do a lot of damage in a short stretch.”

At the same time, a case can be made that it was an achievement in itself to reach the postseason taking into account the magnitude of the offensive struggles.

Going back to Bryant, missing for a large chunk of the season due to injury took its toll on the offense. Any team would have a hard time while missing a player of his caliber. But trying to play through an injury did no favors either for him or the Cubs, and the numbers back that up.

“I was stunned to see that he has five RBIs all season — that is just a huge hole at the top of the line up from a guy you expect to be an above average run producer,” Sanchez said. “It’s even more noticeable in his career wRC+ numbers v. 2020. wRC+ is a stat that measures how likely you are to create runs in a given situation off a baseline of 100 (perfectly average big leaguer). KB has a career wRC+ of 136, i.e. 36% better than the league average hitter. However in 2020 it’s 62 — i.e. 38% worse than the league average hitter.”

As Freedman mentioned, the offensive woes are not a new phenomenon. It has been a problem since arguably as early as 2017 and the front office has put their trust in players like Schwarber and Albert Almora to figure it out, with varying degrees of success.

It is because of this pattern of underperforming offense that the expectations surrounding the Cubs among their fans have been tempered. 

“The team as a whole worries me. At this moment they find themselves simply unable to hit. None of their star players have hit at all this season.” said Randall Sanders, Cubs fan and contributor to @NumbersMLB. “The starting pitching is suspect beyond Darvish and Hendricks. The bullpen has made significant strides since July but I’m worried that it’s a lot of guys outperforming their peripherals.”

The Cubs are far from a perfect team. The bullpen was their biggest weakness heading into the season, but through trial and error, Ross seems to have found a group of relievers to rely on. Yu Darvish was a CY Young contender and Hendricks has been reliable for the most part. Still, because of the holes on this team, fans are being cautious moving forward.

“I think it’s cool that they were able to clinch a spot, but this season is obviously so weird that it really doesn’t mean much in a pure baseball sense,” said Rice Cube of the Cubs blog World Series Dreaming. “Kind of iffy about the future as I’m unsure of  how these guys bounce back. But we know what they used to be capable of so in true Cubs fashion. I’ll never give up hope.”

Never giving up hope is the MO of both the Cubs and their fans. With the new postseason format where teams will be seeded, anything can happen. The Cubs hold the No. 3 seed and look on course to face the Miami Marlins. On paper, a winnable match-up, but the Marlins have nothing to lose as opposed to the Cubs.

All that being said, how do the Cubs stack up and how deep a run can they make?

“That’s a tough question, just given the difficulty of this playoff format,” Freedman said. “A three-game series in the first round makes it easy for any team to lose right away. So I would say winning a round or two would be a real success, but I wouldn’t say it’s a World Series or bust mentality just given the circumstances.”

Simply getting into the playoffs means a team has a shot to go all the way. All it takes is for a team to get hot at the right moment. It’s that hope of putting it all together that the Cubs hope to cling on to.

Five postseason appearances in six seasons is definitely an accomplishment for a team who historically toiled away in the National League and were known as the “lovable losers.”

Back in February when the team was getting ready for spring training in Arizona, Rizzo said that they had to enjoy these days because it wasn’t “Year Two” for the group. That it was coming to the end for all of them as a group. The players know that their window to win another World Series is dwindling but so is the time they have left together as a team.

After winning their third division in five years, Rizzo summed up the mentality heading into the playoffs. According to MLB’s Jordan Bastian, Rizzo said, “We’re very grateful to be in the playoffs. But our expectation is to win the World Series.”