Cubs look to get rolling again: 'We can make the playoffs'

June 29th, 2023

CHICAGO -- Not every outing is purely for the game at hand. When came out of the bullpen for the Cubs on Wednesday night, his performance helped position the staff better for the week to come.

After a rough, abbreviated start by typically reliable lefty Drew Smyly, Wesneski patched things together for 4 1/3 innings in an 8-5 loss to the Phillies. It saved manager David Ross from unnecessarily dipping deeper into his bullpen as Chicago navigates this critical span of games before the All-Star break.

“It puts us in a good spot,” Wesneski said. “Especially with this stretch that we have coming.”

Yes, about that stretch.

The Cubs are facing 11 games in 11 days against the Phillies, Guardians, Brewers and Yankees leading into the All-Star break. With the loss to Philadelphia, the North Siders have now dropped three straight, picking up their first series loss since June 6-8 in the process.

That last series defeat was a gut-punch of a sweep at the hands of the Angels, but there was a quick course correction to breathe life into Chicago’s odds on a couple fronts. By winning 11 out of 13 games after that brooming, the Cubs chipped into their division deficit, inched closer to the .500 mark and made buying at the Trade Deadline a possibility again.

“It definitely put us back in contention, and it's been a lot more fun,” Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said before Wednesday’s loss. “We know we’ve got a lot of baseball left before the Deadline coming up, but certainly we’re in a lot better position than we were three weeks ago.”

The Cubs were playing so well that during a pub event for fans in London last Thursday, chairman Tom Ricketts declared, “Obviously, we’re buyers right now,” per the Chicago Tribune. He quickly added that things could always “come off the rails,” but that was not the expectation or the belief internally.

Wesneski echoed that in the wake of Wednesday’s defeat.

“We want to finish strong and give ourselves a chance for the second half,” said the rookie pitcher. “I still think we can make the playoffs. That’s still something that hasn’t changed in this room.”

The front office’s job is to balance that kind of clubhouse confidence with actual data points.

After the sweep by the Angels on June 8, the Cubs’ odds of winning the division dropped to 5.5% and their odds of making the postseason crashed to a season-low 7.1%, per FanGraphs. Following Chicago’s 9-1 win over St. Louis in the London Series opener on Saturday, those odds were back to 23.2% and 25.3%, respectively.

The Cubs have their own internal projection models to use, as well, while the days march on toward the Aug. 1 Deadline. This recent run has been great for improving the team’s chances, but the reality is that -- while the National League Central is winnable -- Chicago remains below .500 (37-41) as the season’s true midpoint nears.

And as Hawkins reminded, a trade falls into the “irreversible decision” category for a club that has worked hard to restock its farm system.

“At the end of the day,” Hawkins said, “you're making a decision around this year's playoff odds and future year's playoff odds. And so certainly, the exact record that you have doesn't really matter if you get it down to that granular level.

“But from a heuristic standpoint, it just doesn't feel very comfortable being under .500 and saying, ‘Hey, we're in a super competitive position.’”

Right now, the Cubs need to complete their push back to a .500 record, which would be a remarkable feat in its own right, given that the club was 10 games under on June 8. Team historian Ed Hartig noted that only twice (1968 and '96) has the franchise reached .500 in a season after falling 10 games under the break-even mark.

Chicago needs its starting pitching to continue to be the backbone of the roster (Smyly allowed seven runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Phillies). The Cubs need their offense to keep producing (Jared Young’s first MLB homer was a nice moment, but the team ended 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position). And the club must have consistency from the bullpen (Wesneski’s 4 1/3 innings helped for the coming week).

“We went on a good stretch just a minute ago,” Wesneski said. “But I feel like we’re being a little bit streaky, and I think we need to kind of even it out a little bit.”