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Cubs

Analysis: Cubs' 1st half full of surprises

The Cubs' Kris Bryant follows though on a solo home run off Pirates starting pitcher Jordan Lyles in the first inning Thursday in Pittsburgh.
The Cubs' Kris Bryant follows though on a solo home run off Pirates starting pitcher Jordan Lyles in the first inning Thursday in Pittsburgh.

For the third time in Joe Maddon’s five-year tenure as manager, the Cubs lead the National League Central at the All-Star break.

The Cubs were third at the break in 2015, and they finished as the second wild card. They were second in 2017 at 43-45 before catching and passing the Milwaukee Brewers to win the division.

Given the Cubs’ current record of 47-43, it might be hard to believe they hold first place by one-half game over the Brewers, but that speaks to the nature of the Central.

How the Cubs got here is a story filled with surprises, some pleasant and some not so, and some big and some small.

Let’s look at a few of those surprises.

CLEAN IT UP

Reporters grilled team president Theo Epstein on Saturday at Guaranteed Rate Field. One of the questions put to Epstein was what surprised him most about this season.

“I think the sloppiness has kind of surprised all of us,” he said. “For many years now, when we’re at our best, we’re playing sort of alert, focused, heads-up baseball, making the plays we should make, keeping the mental mistakes to a minimum. I think our players are all capable of that.

“That’s kind of got us lately, coming out in the first inning, making some mental mistakes. We can’t put our finger on why. It’s not anyone’s fault, per se. We have to shake that if we’re going to get to where we’re going. We’re not good enough to give four outs or make careless mistakes on the basepaths. We have to be playing heads-up baseball for a long stretch of time. That’s our challenge right now.”

The Cubs are tied for last in the NL with 65 errors, and they are 14th of 15 teams in fielding percentage.

But it’s been more than fielding. Baserunnning mistakes have been rampant so far, as the Cubs have run themselves into far too many outs.

“It’s no secret we need to be more clean on defense,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Mental errors is something that’s just kind of got us. If we clean that up, I think you’ll see our game elevated. It’s mindset. It’s focus. It’s going over every play in your head before the pitch, every scenario, so when it happens, you’re ready for it. I think we are, but it’s just staying laser focused for 27 outs.”

BRYANT’S QUIET RESURGENCE

Third baseman Kris Bryant is at his third All-Star Game, and for good reason.

Bryant’s slash line is .297/.403/.552 with 17 home runs and 44 RBIs. His OPS of .955 is higher than it was at the finish of any of his four previous seasons, and his OPS-plus of 144 is second only to the 146 he put up during his MVP season of 2016. Bryant’s wins above replacement of 3.7 (according to FanGraphs.com) is the highest among Cubs position players.

This is coming off last year’s injury-marred season.

“I really like what he’s done the last several days,” Maddon said. “After that day off in Pittsburgh [last week], he came out and just smoked that ball to right-center. I thought his swing looked A1 [Saturday] again. He looked revitalized. That’s what we’ve seen in the past. That’s what we think we can see in the future.

“He’s excited about the All-Star Game, and I like that. It’s not going to be one that’s going to get him mentally or physically tired. I think he’s eager about it, which is good. I’m really eager to see when he comes back next Friday because I like the swing a lot, not a little bit. So that’s the one that can help possibly put us over the top.”

THE KIMBREL ACQUISITION

Epstein left the Cubs high and dry without a bona fide closer at the beginning of the season. Brandon Morrow hasn’t pitched since before last year’s All-star break, and he continues rehabbing his elbow in Arizona. It’s questionable whether he’ll throw another pitch for the Cubs.

The Cubs claimed not to have had money to spend on big-name free agents last winter, but another surprise enabled them to sign Craig Kimbrel on June 7: infielder-outfielder Ben Zobrist going on the restricted list May 8 to tend to family problems.

Zobrist missed some days in spring training because of family matters, but no one saw this coming. It’s possible he’ll be back before the season ends.

The money Zobrist left on the table helped the Cubs sign Kimbrel for the rest of this season and two more.

Now, the Cubs’ up-and-down middle-relief corps must be able to get the ball to Kimbrel with leads so those save situations are there.

SCHWARBER AT THE TOP

Ever since Dexter Fowler left for the Cardinals via free agency after the 2016 season, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have failed to adequately address the leadoff spot.

Maddon put left fielder Kyle Schwarber there to start the 2017 season, and Schwarber wound up in the minor leagues for a short stint.

The Cubs used 10 different leadoff men last year, and they’ve used seven this year.

Maddon went back to Schwarber in mid-May to surprisingly little fuss or fanfare. As a leadoff hitter, Schwarber has a line of .232/.311/.508 with 13 of his 18 homers.

Of course, Schwarber isn’t a traditional leadoff hitter, but at this point, there’s not much the Cubs can do unless and until Epstein and Hoyer act to give Maddon a better option.

Who knows? They may surprise us.

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