CHICAGO -- Welcome back to real baseball, Cubs fans.
While the historic 2016 season wasn't perfect, it can seem like it in hindsight. A double-digit lead in the National League Central on June 6 allowed Joe Maddon's team to play on house money, and every time Theo Epstein had to buy a vowel, two or three of them would be uncovered. The postseason run was pure magic.
Baseball isn't often like that. It's hard -- like the 2017 season has been for the Cubs.
Just ask the 1997 Yankees, 2005 Red Sox or '06 White Sox. There are always teams like this year's Astros and Nationals ready to step up and grab your mojo.
Maddon and Epstein can't put the genie back in the bottle. William Fowler isn't returning as the leadoff man/center fielder (although he will be at Wrigley Field over the weekend with the Cardinals). Kyle Hendricks isn't going to lead the NL in ERA again.
But for every issue, there is a solution. And here are five of them as we turn the calendar to June and look ahead to a 10-game homestand for the Cubs while trying to help them get ready for a late-June visit to Washington.
Issue No. 1: The starting rotation has a 4.64 ERA, which ranks 22nd in the Major Leagues. It was the best in baseball, at 2.96, last year.
Solution: Trade for Gerrit Cole.
The Pirates aren't ready to hoist a white flag where the Jolly Roger flies, but the Cubs should have a big offer ready for when that time comes. Cole is a difference-maker, and he is under control for two years beyond 2017.
Cole would join Jonathan Lester and Jacob Arrieta to give the Cubs thump at the top of the rotation, lessening the load on John Lackey and Hendricks, and allow Maddon to use Brett Anderson or Eddie Butler only as sixth starters. The price would be somewhere between steep and exorbitant, but the Cubs could meet it -- even if Epstein had to swallow hard and deal Javier Baez or Ian Happ within the division.
Chris Archer would be an even better arm to land than Cole, as his contract runs through 2021, but the Rays are looking more like contenders than sellers (they've won 10 of 15 to go two games over .500). There are many half-measure moves that could also fill the need -- headed by the rental of a free agent-to-be like Yu Darvish -- but why not think big?
Issue No. 2:Kyle Schwarber is human after all, hitting .164 with a -0.9 WAR, lowest among 34 players that have played for the Cubs this season.
Solution: Send Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa.
Because Schwarber rose so quickly, the 2014 first-rounder has two Minor League options remaining, making this a simple decision. It may not yet be the time to do this, however, as the Cubs are scheduled to face right-handers in their next eight games. So Maddon can play Schwarber every day awhile longer. But if Schwarber doesn't find his stroke soon, it will be time to give him a mental break, bring back role player Thomas La Stella and lock in Benjamin Zobrist as the regular left fielder. Another option is promote Jeimer Candelario to play third and shift Kristopher Bryant to left field.
Issue No. 3: Team defense has gone from historically good to average, at best.
Solution: Play your top defensive lineup on a regular basis.
Stop moving Jason Heyward between right field and center field, locking him in at the corner. Turn center over to Albert Almora Jr., in the hope he'll become more consistent with more playing time.
Baez hasn't replicated his brilliance from October, with far too many costly mistakes. But the daily issue is the decline in outfield defense with Fowler gone and Schwarber in left (-5 Defensive Runs Saved, per FanGraphs). Improved play out there would help the rotation and reduce the 4.6 runs per game opponents are scoring (1.2 more than last season).
Issue No. 4: No one is getting big hits. The team is batting .209 with runners in scoring position, 29th in the Majors (ahead of only the Royals).
Solution: None needed. Check back in a month. Clutch hitting runs in cycles and is only put under the microscope when real deficiencies seem to daily narrow games down to a handful of at-bats. We'll bet you didn't know it but the Cubs ranked 21st in the Majors last year by hitting .252 with runners in scoring position.
Issue No. 5: The Cubs are missing Fowler in the leadoff spot.
Solution: Take a long look at Happ there. He may not get on base as often as Zobrist, who is the safest replacement after the Schwarber experiment, but he's got a dynamic presence like Fowler. Happ has cooled off since his fast start, but he could respond to the chance to hit at the top of the order, not in the middle of it.
There's no way the Cubs will again lead the Majors in leadoff OBP, as they did last year (.341). But they've raised that mark to .315, 21st in the Majors, since transitioning from Schwarber to Zobrist. They need to develop a long-term replacement for Fowler in that role, and Happ seems a good place to start.
Can Maddon find regular playing time for Happ, Schwarber, Zobrist and Baez? That's a good question, and it may just lead us back to Issue No. 1.