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For Cubs, return to simplicity may help lineup

Club has talent to defend title, but 2017 run has yet to click
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- You would swear it's a typo if you hadn't been watching the Cubs all season. Kevin Cash was certainly surprised to arrive at Wrigley Field to find Joe Maddon's team 41-41 with only six games left before the All-Star break.

"They're not a .500 club," said Cash, who replaced Maddon as the Rays' manager. "I think all of baseball knows that. They're going to get hot. They've got really good players, really good pitchers and a great coaching staff. They will get hot. I've read Joe's quotes. There's a lot of belief, and there should be a lot of belief. This team is as talented as anybody's (team)."

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CHICAGO -- You would swear it's a typo if you hadn't been watching the Cubs all season. Kevin Cash was certainly surprised to arrive at Wrigley Field to find Joe Maddon's team 41-41 with only six games left before the All-Star break.

"They're not a .500 club," said Cash, who replaced Maddon as the Rays' manager. "I think all of baseball knows that. They're going to get hot. They've got really good players, really good pitchers and a great coaching staff. They will get hot. I've read Joe's quotes. There's a lot of belief, and there should be a lot of belief. This team is as talented as anybody's (team)."

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Yet the standings don't lie.

Cast your Esurance Final Vote for Bryant

Through the first half of the season the Cubs have spun their wheels -- a completely out of the blue development given they had put up a 148-76 record in the regular season from July 29, 2015, through the end of last season.

The regression has been widespread, almost universal. With the exception of Jason Heyward's hitting, the Cubs haven't done anything as well this season as on their drought-busting ride in 2016.

Video: TB@CHC: Heyward drives an RBI single into right field

Cash is right that the Cubs are too talented to keep losing as many games as they're winning. But everybody in Chicago has a suggestion, so here's mine: Pick your eight regulars, line them up in a set order and let them settle into their spots and start feeding off each other.

At a time when hitters around Major League Baseball are hitting home runs at a record pace, the Cubs are scoring 4.6 runs per game, down from 5.0 last season.

Perhaps the best explanation for the drop off is that they had five players -- Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Heyward -- with at least 334 plate appearances by the All-Star break; this season, only Bryant and Rizzo will reach 300.

Video: CHC@CIN: Rizzo launches a moonshot to right field

Maddon could use magic marker for the top four hitters in his lineup last season. Unless he was resting one of them, it was always Dexter Fowler in the leadoff spot, followed by Bryant, Rizzo and Zobrist, in that order.

With Kyle Schwarber unable to nail down the leadoff spot, the lineup has been much more fluid this season. The promotion of Ian Happ in May impacted the dynamic, just as Willson Contreras' emergence did last June.

Bryant acknowledged the feeling of constant shuffling.

"Absolutely," he said. "When you're not playing the way you want to play, [Maddon] is going to want to try to change it up. I don't know if there will be more of it or less of it, but it does feel like it's been more. Of course, you've got the injuries, too. There's a lot of factors playing into that.''

Maddon points to the DL stints for Zobrist and Heyward, along with the lack of production by Schwarber, for leaving Bryant and Rizzo as the only two true regulars.

Video: CHC@WSH: Bryant hits an RBI triple off the wall

"Mostly it is the residue of injury more than anything,'' Maddon said. "And maybe [the lack of production from] Kyle.''

With Heyward being activated from the disabled list for the series against Tampa Bay and Schwarber unlikely to stay at Triple-A Iowa much longer, Maddon may soon have all hands on deck. He'll have some hard choices to make then, as Zobrist, Happ, Russell and Javier Baez present some redundancy -- or viewed positively, as it probably should be, depth.

Happ has been a significant contributor since he arrived, and lately he is one of the Cubs' hottest hitters (.325 with seven homers and 17 RBIs in his last 19 games entering Tuesday). Zobrist, on the other hand, is in a 5-for-54 slump that began while he was trying to play through soreness in his left wrist.

Happ would be my option for the leadoff spot, playing regularly in center field. Once Schwarber is back, I'd put him back in left field but this time as a middle-of-the-order hitter (cleanup vs. right-handers, fifth or sixth against lefties). I'd go with Baez as the regular second baseman and, of course, Russell at short. That means Zobrist, Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay play off the bench.

It's possible the Cubs have too many cooks in the kitchen. But can depth really be a bad thing for a team? That seems counterintuitive.

But if Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer wanted to thin the herd, they could put one of their young guys in a trade for a controllable starting pitcher later this month. You always deal precocious players at your own risk, however, as the Cubs were reminded when Chris Archer started against them Tuesday.

They once traded Archer in a package for Matt Garza. Ouch.

Hopefully the fix is a lot simpler this time around.

"I just think when we've gone through our hot streaks, it's just been one guy,'' Bryant said. "If we can get a couple guys going good at the same time, it would definitely pick the offense up a little bit. Maybe that's an answer.''

Once the Cubs get started, it could be tough to slow them down.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Chicago Cubs