CHICAGO -- The Cubs are a few days away from being able to hit a mental reset button. When the All-Star break arrives, it will be a chance for the club to take a collective deep breath, examine the road it took in the first half and continue to plan for the Trade Deadline and second half.
"Change is obviously called for if we keep playing like this," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Wednesday in an interview on 670 AM.
Some of that change might come from within -- like Robel Garcia's promotion from Triple-A Iowa. Some of it will need to happen on the field -- such as the collective energy and fire on display in Thursday's 11-3 romp over the Pirates. And then there could be moves before the end of the month to address some of the club's issues via external solutions.
The bottom line is this: "I think you find out a lot about what people are made of during stretches like these," Epstein said.
On the eve of the Cubs' two-game series with the White Sox to close out the first half, here is a look at three positive developments and three red flags for the North Siders.
1. Robel's rise
The Cubs are hoping to have caught lightning in a bottle in Garcia. And lightning actually struck right before his first career home run on Thursday. You can't make this stuff up. Just like you could not have dreamed up Garcia's story: discovered by the Cubs following several years playing in Italy after being released by the Indians in 2014. In his first MLB start, all Garcia did was single, triple and homer.
By calling Garcia up, Chicago is clearly examining whether he is a viable, sustainable option to shore up the offensive black hole that has been second base. Addison Russell has provided plus defensive value at the position, but the group of players who have cycled through second have combined for a .217/.300/.361 slash line and an 82 wRC+ (18 percent below league average). Garcia, 26, had not played in affiliated baseball since '13, but tore through Double-A and Triple-A this year (21 homers in 291 plate appearances with a .958 OPS).
The switch-hitter also had a 30.9 percent strikeout rate in the Minors, so the adjustment to MLB pitching will bear monitoring. In Garcia's first start, Pittsburgh's pitching fed him more curveballs (eight) than any other pitch. So, it was good to see that Garcia did not just smoke a fastball for the home run, but he connected on two curves for his other hits.
2. Kris with RISP
Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant currently ranks seventh on the team in plate appearances with runners in scoring position. One reason could be that he has spent most of the season in the lineup's No. 2 slot. Maddon has batted the pitcher eighth at times with the goal of creating more RISP chances for the Nos. 2-3 slots, but it has not always worked. On Thursday, Bryant was bumped back to No. 3 and he responded with a 4-for-5 day -- going 1-for-1 with RISP.
Getting more out of Bryant (.774 OPS and 101 wRC+ with RISP this year) with runners on would go a long way in having Chicago's offense humming again. Entering Friday, the Cubs ranked 14th in the National League in average (.249) with RISP, while falling to the middle of the pack in OPS (.810). Javier Baez (1.014 OPS in 88 PA), Willson Contreras (.984 OPS in 82 PA) and Anthony Rizzo (.893 OPS in 82 PA) have the most RISP chances to date.
3. Q's curve
Cubs manager Joe Maddon recently said José Quintana could benefit if he did not "just rely on [his] fastball so heavily all the time." Quintana threw more curves (34) than he had all season on Saturday against the Reds and then threw even more (35) on Thursday against the Pirates. The result? Back-to-back quality starts for Quintana. If the veteran left-hander can gain more consistency on the mound via that type of arsenal adjustment, it would be a great boost for a Cubs rotation that is currently without Cole Hamels (left oblique strain) and only recently had Kyle Hendricks return from the injured list.
1. Russell's struggles
As noted earlier, Russell has done well in the field overall, posting a 13.1 UZR/150 (second among second basemen with at least 200 innings) and 2.9 Defensive runs above average (sixth). That said, there have been some mental lapses -- such as the baffling decision to throw home in the ninth on Wednesday. And offensively, Russell has continued to be a well below-average hitter as well. Since May 27, he's turned in a .218/.284/.308 slash line with a 50 wRC+ (50 percent below MLB average). With the Trade Deadline in mind, second base and the outfield are the easiest places to potentially add offense. So the Cubs will see what they might have in Garcia, and the team may have to weigh Russell's fit in the roster down the stretch.
2. Left on left woes
One of Chicago's biggest needs at the Trade Deadline will be an impact left-hander for the bullpen. While Kyle Ryan has been an effective ground-ball machine, he has relatively even splits with a slant towards being better against righties. Mike Montgomery is also not a traditional left-on-left reliever and has struggled all season. Entering Friday, Cubs' lefty relievers in 2019 had combined to allow a .344/.406/.566 slash line with a .404 wOBA. To put it another way, lefty batters have basically been Carlos Santana (.302/.420/.548 with a .403 wOBA) against Chicago's left-handed relievers this season. In a big postseason moment against a lefty slugger, who will the Cubs trust? Help is needed.
3. Kimbrel's velocity
Given that Craig Kimbrel had an extended offseason due to his delayed signing via free agency, it might be too early to read too much into this one, yet. With that caveat out of the way, the Cubs' new closer averaged 94.9 mph on his fastball on Wednesday, per Statcast. As MLB.com's Mike Petriello pointed out, that's Kimbrel's lowest fastball velocity in an outing since 2013. It's worth noting that Kimbrel's average velocity continued to rise deep into last season, so the expectation would be that it ticks up from here throughout the rest of the year. Nonetheless, it is something to keep an eye on.