How the Cubs will Win the NL Central Title in 2016

The 2016 MLB regular season started off with a bang for the Chicago Cubs (53-35). They went 17-5 in April and were off to their best start since 1907. May was kind too – maybe not as much as April – with the Cubs pounding out an 18-10 record. Things were certainly looking up as June began and the Cubs sported an impressive 35-15 record.

Once the calendar turned to June the Cubs started to encounter a range of issues. Injuries to Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler, Tommy La Stella, Clayton Richard, David Ross and newly acquired Chris Coghlan, all combined to complicate matters and also create opportunities.

The Cubs called up young prospects Albert Almora, Willson Contreras, Carl Edwards, Jr. and Jeimer Candelario – all young studs who got their first glimpse of the big leagues. Some of these kids seem likely to have found a permanent home on the roster – such as Willson Contreras and possibly Albert Almora – and the others got valuable experience. Either way, the fact that the Cubs were able to get these kids playing time on the big league team is going to pay off big time in the future.

As you’d expect with all the player movement, the Cubs were not as successful in June and July as they were in the first two months. From June 1 to the all-star break they finished with an 18-20 record. Two games under .500 and suddenly reality was beginning to set in as Cubs fans were starting to grow concerned.

Even with the tough stretch in June and July, the Cubs are still 18 games over .500 with a 7 game lead over second place St. Louis – the largest division lead in baseball. So, while it may feel disconcerting to lose so many games all at once, the cumulative effect of the season has still left the Cubs in an enviable position.

Lineup questions

Dexter Fowler should return soon to the Cubs lineup. He’s going to continue to rehab his injured hamstring but, barring a set back, he should be back within a week or two after the all-star break. Jorge Soler’s status is not yet known. He hasn’t been designated for a rehab stint yet so it’s not yet known what the timing is on his return.

The Cubs lineup will look something like this upon Fowler’s return: Fowler (CF), Bryant (3B), Rizzo (1B), Zobrist (2B), Contreras (C), Heyward (RF), Russell (SS), Almora, Jr (LF). Swap in Javier Baez at 3B and push Bryant to LF and you have a pretty good idea of what the Cubs look like going forward, with the obvious rotation at the catcher position between Contreras, Ross and Montero.

On the pitching side – the strong suit for the Cubs for most of the first half – things get a little more fuzzy. Sure, the starting line up is cemented with Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Hammel and Lackey. You could argue that it’s possible Theo decides to add a young stud like Sonny Gray – who’s been anything but studly so far this year with a 5.16 ERA and 4.50 FIP – before the trade deadline and move one of the current starters to the pen.

To me, this seems like the best and quickest way to improve the Cubs pitching for the home stretch of the season. They need to improve the bullpen, they need a reliable sixth starter and they could use a young, experienced pitcher who’s under team control for several years.

If the Cubs can combine Jorge Soler with a young prospect or two, I think this is the type of deal that can and should get done. So stay tuned for further developments there because, at this point, it’s all a guessing game.

Second half speculation

As long as the Cubs can get healthy and somehow improve their bullpen, they should have no problems cruising to the NL Central division title. Beware though, they have a tough start to the second half that begins with a series against the Rangers, followed by the Mets, Brewers, White Sox, Seattle and Miami. The upside is that they play 14 of those 19 games at Wrigley and the only away games – the Brewers and the White Sox – are still close to home.

Set that stretch against the stretch they endured before the all-star break, where the played 24 straight games and had to travel for 14 of them, all while dealing with multiple injuries. When you look at it that way, it’s pretty easy to think the Cubs can and should get out to a good start after the break. If they do, it should be smooth sailing into September, as long as they can dispatch the Cardinals at Wrigley, August 11-14, and the Pirates at Wrigley, August 29-31.

September will present a whole host of potential pitfalls as the Cubs start the month with a four-game series against the Giants at Wrigley. They’ll go on to play St. Louis six times and the Pirates four, so, if the Cubs haven’t already pushed their division lead to double digits by September, things could get very interesting in the final month.

Final call

As things currently stand, the Cubs are on pace to win 98 games. I’m sticking to my opening day prediction of 105 wins.  I think the Cubs will start to pick up steam again after the break and I’d expect them to perform closer to a .700 win percent over the second half of the season, especially if they are able to shore up the bullpen.

Stay tuned folks, this is just starting to get interesting.

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