Chicago Cubs have a lot of work to do in 2 months before trade deadline

CHICAGO — Two months into the season, the Chicago Cubs can depend on their starting rotation and not much else. Even that team strength comes with qualifiers. Shota Imanaga will regress to some degree as the Japanese pitcher goes through his first major-league season. Ben Brown will also need to be monitored closely as the innings mount during his rookie year. All the injury reports show that pitching is inherently fragile.

With two months to go until the July 30 trade deadline — and so many issues plaguing this team — nothing should be ruled out. You can never have enough pitching, as president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer likes to say, so the Cubs will always keep that on their radar. But you could already make the case that the roster needs a new catcher, a power hitter and a closer. Things could also be done on the margins. And that’s just to avoid finishing with 83 wins again and missing the playoffs by one game.

There are larger questions about what it would take to win the World Series, how to position the club for 2025 and beyond with a forward-looking trade, and what the Cubs ultimately want to be as a big-market franchise.

“You have to be opportunistic,” Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “That’s what Jed’s trying to be. That’s his job. And I’m sure he will be.”

The June 1 snapshot (stats entering Saturday) shows that the Cubs have a lot of work to do through some combination of internal fixes and external additions. If the Cubs want to be taken seriously as a contender, they need to clean up their haphazard play. After Saturday night’s rain delay lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes, Seiya Suzuki’s plus-minus rating in the second inning included a dropped fly ball that led to four unearned runs and his first career grand slam. The ensuing 7-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field — punctuated by Dansby Swanson’s go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth inning — summed up the unevenness.

• No one is carrying the offense, which doesn’t have a qualified hitter with an OPS higher than the .781 posted by Cody Bellinger and Michael Busch. Swanson, the All-Star shortstop with the $177 million contract, was hitting .206 with a .600 OPS. The Cubs have scored three runs or fewer in 27 of their first 58 games. The lineup needs to generate more pressure and execute in key moments.

• The little things have become bigger issues. The Cubs are in the bottom third of the majors in terms of defensive efficiency, fielding percentage, defensive runs saved and outs above average. The Cubs have also run into more outs on the bases than every other team in the majors except for the Los Angeles Angels (who are tied with Chicago at the top of this negative category). All this stuff adds up for a sub-.500 team.

• These breakdowns put even more stress on the bullpen, which has converted half of the available save opportunities (12-for-24). Cubs relievers have gone 15-16 with a 4.61 ERA that ranks 27th out of 30 clubs. Julian Merryweather, a high-leverage reliever who’s on the 60-day injured list with a rib stress fracture, isn’t expected back until after the All-Star break.

“It feels like, on the hitting side, we’ve flown out hard or to the warning track a bunch,” pitcher Jameson Taillon said. “On the pitching side, we’ve given up a lot of weak hits. But that’s baseball. That’s the game we play. And at some point, it’ll go our way.

“Yeah, it’s tough right now, there’s no doubt. But at the same time, you just got to keep going.”

Hoyer’s front office already made a small trade with the Seattle Mariners to reinforce the bullpen, acquiring right-hander Tyson Miller, who had scoreless appearances in six of his first seven games back with the Cubs. A sense of urgency was apparent in the recent move to recall Pete Crow-Armstrong from Triple-A Iowa, giving Counsell an elite defender in center field and more options to play matchups. More injuries could force the Cubs to readjust their priorities before the trade deadline.

“All managers are a part of that on some level,” Counsell said. “I also think there’s people who spend all of their hours here working on those things. You have to trust that they’re prepared and doing it the right way. I look at myself as a consultant in that scenario. It’s not my responsibility. I’m offering an opinion on it. But I don’t have enough bandwidth to be as good as they are at it. No manager does.”

Only one manager has a five-year, $40 million contract, which puts Counsell on equal footing with the front office and gives him more power than virtually anyone else in his position. It will be interesting to see how much future value the front office is willing to give up to try to win now, whether ownership will exceed the $237 million luxury tax threshold, and if the manager ultimately gets what he wants.

“You can certainly advocate for certain players,” Counsell said. “When things are brought to the table, you offer opinions.”

The Cubs aren’t as bad as their 10-18 record in May, nor are they as good as their 97-win pace at the end of April. The Cubs began play Saturday night seven games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the division — much closer to last place than first — but still only one game out of a wild-card spot. Unless you somehow think the Brewers are becoming a juggernaut without Counsell and Corbin Burnes, the National League appears to have three elite teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves — and then a bunch of mediocrity.

The Cubs should at least maintain a baseline of competitiveness as long as Imanaga continues to perform at a high level and Justin Steele returns to his All-Star form. Taillon (2.84 ERA) is displaying the consistency that has defined his career. Javier Assad (2.27 ERA) remains one of the best under-the-radar pitchers in baseball. Hoyer’s front office and Counsell’s coaching staff should be able to figure out the rest — or else there will be a lot of questions about whether this franchise is going in the right direction.

“We’ve had unbelievable starting pitching the whole way through,” outfielder Ian Happ said. “We haven’t taken advantage of really good pitching. Those things happen through the course of the season. It doesn’t always look as perfect as (you want). It’ll all balance out. And we’ll get some stretch here where everything kind of clicks.”

(Photo of Seiya Suzuki: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)

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