Two Weeks Before 2017 All-Star Break, Injury-Plagued Cubs Look to Second Half

When I wrote my last post 10 days ago, the Cubs were a 50-50 team, running slightly behind the first place Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central Division. Nearly a fortnight later they are…

…still a mediocre club with a 38-37 record, one and a half games in back of the Brewers. The landscape in a weak divisional year hasn’t changed much, and neither has the Cubs streaky play. But a few other key elements to the 2017 season have undergone seismic shifts. And even the changes that seem tough right now may bode for a stronger Cubbies second half.

The Good – Rizzo, Happ and Naked Javy Baez

Anthony Rizzo has cooled slightly from his hotter than Hades initial performance in the leadoff spot. But perfection is unsustainable. In his first seven games batting number one, Rizzo went 6-6 with a double, three home runs and a walk. This type of jolt is exactly what the Cubs lackluster offense lineup needed. It’s as important for team morale as it is overall hit production for the leadoff guy to set the tone and pace.

Rizzo’s June grab for “headlines and highlights” adds exciting suspense to All-Star balloting. Voting concludes this week Thursday and the Cubs first baseman faces stiff competition from Ryan Zimmerman, Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto. Members of Wrigleyville Nation will no doubt continue flocking to the polls.

And while he may not qualify for an All-Star spot, nor win the official National League honors at season’s end, the Cubs have found their own Rookie of the Year in Ian Happ, 22. CSNChicago’s Patrick Mooney wrote of the young slugger last week:

“The Cubs factored Ian Happ into their preseason plans, hoping he could give the team a shot of adrenaline at some point and play well enough to be marketed as a trade chip in a blockbuster deal for pitching.

But the Cubs couldn’t have projected this for late June: Happ batting third behind Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, [exactly] the switch-hitting presence and middle-of-the-order force needed.”

Happ’s fresh face, enthusiasm and strong performance serve as potent reminders that the Cubs are a young team with crazy potential only just tapped. They may be down, but there’s no reason to call them out with half a season left to play.

And we conclude our survey of great doings in Wrigleyville Nation with a public service reminder that Javy Baez is featured in ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue 2017. At the risk of objectifying a talented athlete, the visuals are stunning. I may be happily engaged to a wonderful, smart and funny man, but it’s not as though I’ve lost my sight. I recall well the furor over Jake Arrieta’s similarly uncovered show of athleticism, but was not nearly….shall we say….affected by it.

I believe I speak for many fans of the human physique when I say: Go, Cubs Go!

The Not as Good – Injuries and Schwarbs Sent to the Minors

Obviously if everything was working as it should, as pre-season predictions figured, the Cubs would occupy first place in the NL Central today. They do not and with good reason. Some of the challenges start with physical health.

The Cubbies are hobbled with injuries. Addison Russell has shoulder problems. Golden Glove phenom Jason Heyward is afflicted with left hand troubles. 2016 Cy Young Award contender Kyle Hendricks has some middle finger inflammation (not to be confused with my own middle finger’s wayward behavior toward the club’s 2017 middle relief staff). And Ben Zobrist’s left wrist kept him home in lieu of the team’s latest road trip.

I know this because my fiancé Bob and I saw the 2016 World Series MVP dining out at a Chicago BBQ joint this past Saturday with his three small, exceedingly well-behaved children. Selfishly, it was delightful to see a good ball player out in the world being a good dad. But Cubs Nation needs Zobrist back on the field.

So we’ve got four major players responsible for 2016 World Series glory on the disabled list. And a fifth is cooling his heels and trying to adjust his attitude in the minor leagues. Oh Kyle Schwarber, how the mighty and mythical have fallen. So far and so fast. Sports Illustrated’s Jon Taylor said it perfectly late last week:

“In the latest example of ‘Baseball is a very hard sport even for those who are very good at it,’ the Cubs announced on Thursday that they were sending World Series hero Kyle Schwarber down to Triple A due to a terminal case of him being terrible this season.”

When you look the numbers, including Schwarber’s horrendous 2017, .171 batting average, the decision to send him down the ladder is a no-brainer. But it hurts! There’s no more painful reminder that the 2016 champs have hit hard times than our World Series wonder boy’s complete collapse.

Yet even these setbacks – a pile of solid guys on the DL, the demotion of one of the team’s young superstars – promise a rebound. Injuries and terrible streaks are as fleeting as Anthony Rizzo’s brief leadoff perfection. We’ve got some open sores to lick over the coming All-Star break. But we’ll be back.