Even if Cubs Make Necessary Bench Changes, Stars Must Shine to Win

The Cubs have lost five in a row to fall to 27-27, putting them five games back in the division and a half-game back in the Wild Card. They are also 2-8 in their last 10 and now have a -7 run differential on the season, so even that .500 record paints a better picture than we’re currently seeing. But for as much focus as people are putting on various decisions by the front office or Craig Counsell, the simple fact of the matter is that their stars aren’t doing their jobs.

Before we get to that, however, I want to look at a few of those questionable decisions. First up is Pete Crow-Armstrong being optioned to Triple-A and then staying there despite raking since the demotion. He kinda has to, but still. It didn’t make much sense to me at the time and makes even less now, especially considering how Luis Vázquez has gotten just a single plate appearance since being recalled a week ago.

The lack of playing time lends credence to my theory that the Cubs called him up as a way to give him a mental break and a reward at the same time, though playing shorthanded is foolish. Vázquez hasn’t been used to spell either Dansby Swanson or Nico Hoerner as expected, nor has he played third base after getting a little run there in Iowa.

Instead, Nick Madrigal has played at the hot corner three times since Vázquez has been with the team. While that is in keeping with the above theory, it doesn’t help the Cubs either win or develop young players. Vázquez certainly isn’t getting better by sitting on the bench every game and neither the lineup nor the defense are improved by Madrigal playing.

After a surprise breakout performance with the glove last year, Madrigal has zero defensive runs saved and -2 outs above average at third. His costly error on Monday evening led to a Brewers rally that buried the Cubs in what had been a scoreless game to that point. Though the loss can’t be blamed on one player, Madrigal is also slashing .224/.283/.259 with a 61 wRC+ and a -0.5 fWAR. Simply put, he is producing well below replacement level.

That’s an easy and long overdue choice for Jed Hoyer to make, but moving on from Madrigal — even if it’s just optioning him to Iowa — isn’t going to solve anything if the key players in that lineup continue to drag ass. The catching combo of Yan Gomes and Miguel Amaya has been a black hole at the plate, combining for -0.7 fWAR with neither putting up better than a .146 average and 25 wRC+ in May.

Swanson’s 44 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR can be blamed at least in part on a bum knee that kept him out for much of the month, though he wasn’t playing all that well prior to the injury. Seiya Suzuki and Christopher Morel have likewise had a negative impact in May as they battle through respective funks, and almost no one is hitting well if we narrow the focus to the last two weeks.

Among Cubs hitters with more than 12 plate appearances in that sample, only Ian Happ (158 wRC+) has created runs at a league-average rate. Mike Tauchman‘s 94 is close, but Cody Bellinger (82), Michael Busch (71), and Hoerner (67) have all fallen off. The baseball season will always see its share of ups and downs, but nearly the entire lineup has been failing to a great degree for more than just a series or even a week now.

So again, nothing the Cubs do with PCA, Vázquez, Madrigal, etc. will make a difference if all but one of their regulars keeps playing like this. And since the front office can’t very well wave a magic wand to get Suzuki, Swanson, and others to start hitting again, making a few tweaks around the margins is still necessary. Bringing Crow-Armstrong back up and putting Bellinger at first for a while would help, but timing dictates waiting a few days.

Barring injury, which is a very real possibility given how the season has gone, PCA has to stay down for 10 days from his option date of May 20. In the meantime, however, the Cubs could actually give Vázquez a shot to play over Madrigal. The glove would almost certainly be better and the bat can’t really be much worse, even if the rookie doesn’t shake off the slump he was in prior to being called up. If they’re not going to play the kid, they need to get him back to Iowa ASAP for more reps.

On that front, the decision with Madrigal may have to be a designation rather than just a demotion. We should be well past the point of thinking he’s going to carve out a niche as a slap hitter with a high average, and even the defense we saw last year isn’t nearly enough to offset well-below-average offensive production. There’s not much use in him taking up a spot in Iowa at this point.

I know a lot of you may be thinking it, but no, this is not the time for David Bote‘s return. He’s hit fairly well at Iowa over the past two seasons, but he’s not on the 40-man roster and the Cubs have made it painfully clear by now that they have no plans for him to rejoin the big club. It would be nice if they could find a place for him with another organization, though his contract will probably keep him at Iowa until he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.

The Cubs had a similar communal slump around this time last year and they managed to shake it off over the course of the summer, so there’s still hope. That said, their play of late smacks of lethargy and has wandered into incompetence on occasion. It’s like when you’re trying to read a book and you doze off briefly, losing your place and maybe even dropping the book. Or worse, when you’re driving and the rumble strips alert you to the fact that you’re drifting a bit.

Even if it’s too early for the Cubs to wreck their season just yet, they might want to pull over for a caffeine boost here soon.

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