By Bruce Levine–
(CBS) After salvaging the last game of the first half of the season with a 6-5 victory against the Pirates on Sunday afternoon, the Cubs will take a much needed All-Star break. Seven deserving Cubs are headed to San Diego for the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday, while the other 18 will kick their feet up, let their wounds heal and get revved up for the last 74 games of the season.
The Cubs are 53-35, seven games ahead of the second-place Cardinals in the NL Central and 7.5 games ahead of the Pirates.
What went wrong for the Cubs over the last month was a combination of injury and a breakdown of the most essential part of any club — starting pitching. The Cubs rotation had a 2.32 ERA during the first 68 games of the season. Since that time, the starting pitchers did a 180. The five regulars, plus Adam Warren for one spot start, have compiled a 5.72 ERA over the last 20 games, during which Chicago went 6-14.
The only Cubs starting pitchers to win a game since June 18 have been Kyle Hendricks with three victories and Jake Arrieta with one. After a spectacular first two-and-a-half months from the starting pitchers, some regression was expected, but a total downturn of the staff wasn’t. That led to an over-exposed bullpen, which added to the concern of fans and team officials alike.
It’s also worth noting that the Cubs offense sputtered for stretches without lead-off man and center fielder Dexter Fowler, the team’s catalyst and energized who has bee sidelined with a hamstring injury. Others, like Ben Zobrist, have performed well in the lead-off spot, but no one replicates Fowler’s skills. His return and physical condition will be something to watch closely in the second half.
Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are actively pursuing trades that make sense for this season. Whenever the Cubs believe the timing is right, they can trade quality young position players for a left-handed bat and bullpen help.
The Cubs are built to win now, with veteran starting pitchers and a lineup that can score off of all kinds of pitching.
Young prospects like Gleyber Torres, Billy McKinney, Ian Happ and Jeimer Candelario are attractive to other clubs, some of whom are looking to do what the Cubs did from 2012-’14 in retooling their organizations. In those cases, short-term veterans will be available for the Cubs to choose from.
The Athletics have a group of these veterans who will be moved in the next 21 days. The Cubs would like to add a bat like outfielder Josh Reddick or bullpen men such as right-hander Ryan Madson or left-hander Sean Doolittle.
For the Cubs, a main point is to remember is restraint when gauging the future. They have young players who are getting experience and improving daily in the major leagues. A week ago, the Cubs started eight position players who were 26 or younger.
Taking a seven-game lead into the second half in any season is a remarkable feat. Even with that in mind, the break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cubs given their recent struggles. Less of an innings load will be some to watch in the final months. That was the plan of the Cubs brass to begin the season, as the organization didn’t want arm fatigue to affect performance in the postseason.
Pitchers like Warren and other long relievers on the team will be key for the Cubs in their pursuit of postseason glory.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.