- Jesse Rogers, Chicago Cubs beat reporter
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MIAMI -- It doesn’t seem like the Chicago Cubs just completed a .500 month of May in going 14-14, does it? It feels like they did a lot worse. Instead, they’re right back where they were at the end of April, four games above the .500 mark. A dramatic, 11th-inning victory over the Kansas City Royals on Sunday made all the difference in ending the month without a losing record as the Cubs head out on a three-city road tour beginning with a series in Miami on Monday night.
The only difference between now and the end of April is the Cubs are looking up at two wild-card teams instead of owning a two-game lead as they did on May 1. The big boys have come to play as San Francisco and Pittsburgh are making their moves. Somehow, the New York Mets are ahead of the Cubs despite a four-game sweep by the latter team earlier last month. That series feels like it was played a lot longer than just a few weeks ago as the Cubs have been scuffling to find wins ever since. In the glass half-full or half-empty world, you would still have to think it’s half-full for the Cubs. After all, the numbers point to a very rough month -- but they survived it. Consider:
The Cubs hit .231 in May, second worst in the National League. Their on-base percentage was .309, good for ninth in the NL. Their 106 runs scored ranked 11th.
The Cubs struck out 291 times last month, 45 more times than the next team in the league, the San Diego Padres.
Overall, the Cubs' pitching staff was in the middle of the pack in May with a 3.63 ERA while the bullpen ranked 13th with a 4.37 ERA.
The Cubs made 41 errors in May, second most in the NL, while opponents achieved an 80 percent success rate on stolen base attempts, worst percentage in the NL.
After reading those numbers it is a wonder the Cubs went .500 last month. How did they survive? Their starting staff -- still the most important aspect of any team -- picked up their collective game. They produced a 3.29 ERA in May, good for third in the NL. That’s what kept the Cubs above water. And the offense started to hit some home runs. They ranked fifth in that category in the NL in May and were only three home runs behind four teams who tied for the top spot. Home runs and starting pitching can mask a lot of other problems.
The biggest issue these days, of course, is the bullpen. All those close games the Cubs are playing -- 24 of 48 this season have been decided by one run -- are taking their toll on a relief staff barely keeping it together. They get high marks for outdueling the Royals' vaunted bullpen on Sunday, but those moments were few and far between in the month of May. Here’s the issue: While it’s great to be in games all the way to the end, it’s too bad they can’t know ahead of time if they’re going to come out on top or not. On the days they’re going to lose a one-run game they may as well save their top relievers and pitch Edwin Jackson or Travis Wood as therein still lies one problem with the makeup of the bullpen. They essentially have two long relievers on a team that’s playing so many close games.
And the Cubs can’t keep going to Pedro Strop. It was about a month ago that manager Joe Maddon said Strop’s high appearance rate would come down. Instead, it’s increased as he’s now on pace for about 88 relief outings. He says he’s fine with that but every reliever says that until his arm falls off or he’s wholly ineffective. Strop is closer to the latter option already, though he’s gutting out innings as much as possible.
One solution -- and this was happening toward the end of April and beginning of May before a slump -- is for the offense to kick into high gear. We’re finally (maybe) past the cold weather -- hear that Jorge Soler? -- and the rookies should be past the initial whirlwind that is their first months in the big leagues. It wouldn’t hurt if some veterans took it up a notch as well.
Starlin Castro had a month to forget. Ground ball after ground ball (58 percent) ended up in the opposing shortstop’s glove as he hit .220 in May while walking just six times, least of any regular last month. Only 16 percent of his contact resulted in a line drive. The one positive Maddon has pointed out regarding Castro is his ability to “move the ball” as those ground balls constitute contact, at least. He was well outside the top 5 of strikeouts in May as this was the main reason the manager had him batting fourth. The thinking was simply that if Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are on base so much ahead of Castro, having a contact hitter behind them can’t be a bad thing. The only problem is that notion really only comes into play in a positive way when one of them is on third and there are less than two outs and a double play isn’t in order -- so not very often. Castro did drive in 12 runs in May, third most on the team, but that’s not a number that will set any records.
For the season, Castro has been good in situations deemed late/close hitting .310 with a .394 on-base percentage. Considering the Cubs' propensity to play games tight, that’s a decent statistic to examine -- not that players can necessarily decide when they get their hits or get on base.
If there is anyone that has a huge upside in some of those more “clutch” situations it’s Soler. He’s had the second-most at-bats with men in scoring position this season and is only hitting .191. Every time he looks to be turning a corner like he did in Phoenix with a big late-inning double, he ends up going the other way -- he struck out with a chance to win the game in the ninth inning on Sunday, for example. Of course, the game was played in cold temperatures, Soler’s kryptonite.
Back to the good news: Starters Kyle Hendricks and Tsuyoshi Wada have solidified the back end of the rotation while the other rookies, Bryant and Addison Russell, are just getting started, it feels. Russell led all rookies in doubles in May while Bryant was second in home runs.
There are questions for this month besides who the Cubs will take with the No.9 pick in next Monday’s amateur draft. By the way, isn’t it nice that the draft isn’t the biggest Cubs' news of the summer for once? More important is what happens after the draft. Trade season should pick up, and arms for the bullpen are an obvious need as the team weights its short-term needs versus long-term. When will recently acquired reliever Yoervis Medina be ready? And how about CJ Edwards? Both have real possibilities of helping an overworked bullpen. If the Cubs are serious, they’ll open up roster spots taken up by Jackson and even Wood. That’s on them to figure out.
Some fans may be clamoring for hot-hitting Double-A catcher Kyle Schwarber to make an appearance at Wrigley Field, but it’s doubtful the Cubs will rush him through Triple-A. Bryant’s template is a good one to follow. He got promoted last year right after the Southern League all-star game which is June 23. The obvious difference between last year and this one is the Cubs are contending, so if the front office believes Schwarber’s bat can help them in the second half there’s no reason to hold him back. But only they know if he’ll be ready. Same is the case with Javier Baez, who is likely to get called up if there’s an injury to a starter in the near future.
After an up-and-down month, maybe the Cubs are ready to push further past the .500 mark instead of just treading water. A long road trip is as good a place to start as any -- as is a new month of the season. At least we know Soler won’t mind hitting in tropical Miami this week. Nearly one-third of the season is over and the Cubs are looking up at a playoff spot. Where will they be come July?