2 lingering questions as Cubs make playoff push

August 3rd, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jordan Bastian’s Cubs Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- Cubs manager David Ross never saw the Trade Deadline as a distraction for his ballclub behind the scenes. If anything, Ross said it seemed like the team thrived under the sense of urgency to stack up wins to convince the front office to shift into buy mode for the stretch run.

“It’s almost been a fun thing to chase in a weird way,” Ross said. “Just piling on wins, and the guys continued to just be business as usual leading up to this, to be honest.”

Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer went out and acquired corner infielder -- arguably the best bat available on the market -- to lengthen the lineup. More importantly, Chicago made the decision to retain its top trade chips: center fielder Cody Bellinger and starter .

With that in mind, here are two big questions now facing the Cubs for the final two months:

1. Can the bullpen keep it together?

The Cubs added some bullpen depth arms (Jose Cuas and Josh Roberson) at the Deadline in two Minor League trades. Cuas joined the MLB group, but Chicago did not land a lefty for a bullpen that has been leaning on righty Mark Leiter Jr. (.509 OPS vs. lefty batters) for lefty-heavy pockets.

“We tried pretty hard,” Hoyer said. “We were definitely in on a lot of different guys, but not all deals come together.”

The bullpen has at least turned into an area of strength. In June and July, Chicago’s relief corps had MLB’s second-lowest ERA (3.16) thanks to the quartet of Adbert Alzolay, Michael Fulmer, Julian Merryweather and Leiter seizing the leverage moments. Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski and Daniel Palencia have solidified the group, as well.

One layer of risk involves workload, though. Merryweather is at a career-high in MLB innings already and has not thrown this much since 2017, when he was a starter in the Minors. Alzolay is carrying a heavy load after missing most of ‘22 due to injury woes. In order to have this all not backfire, the Cubs need to avoid health setbacks and have their emerging cast continue to hold the line.

2. Can Stroman return from IL and rediscover ace-level form?

The Cubs placed Stroman on the 15-day injured list on Wednesday due to right hip inflammation, offering some explanation for the pitcher’s recent struggles. Simply put: It will be crucial for the Cubs that Stroman is able to use this recovery period to find his rhythm for the rest of the season.

Stroman fashioned a 2.28 ERA in his first 16 outings (25 earned runs in 98 2/3 innings), but has put up a 9.00 ERA in his last seven turns (30 earned runs in 30 innings).

“Listen, he’s a big part of why we’re here,” Hoyer said. “He was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’s had some struggles now, but certainly guys have ups and downs all the time. And he really carried us for a period of time. The hope is that he gets back to that, certainly.”

During the recent seven-start stretch, opposing batters have attacked Stroman’s sinker to the tune of a .319 average and .458 slugging percentage. The righty limited hitters to a .202 average and .262 SLG with the pitch in his previous 16 outings. Stroman has said inconsistency with his slider, combined with some mechanical issues, has complicated the situation.