No, there is not any good or valid reason to panic about the under-.500 Cubs

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

The Chicago Cubs got shut out Sunday and dropped below .500. They’ve made the most errors in the National League, their starting pitchers give up too many runs, they’re slugging worse than the A’s, Marlins and Braves, Kris Bryant can’t stop ralphing, Kyle Schwarber is hitting .180 and Jake Arrieta’s ERA is 5.44. At this point last season, the Cubs were 27-10. Today, they are 18-19.

Were a brave columnist to attempt to quantify exactly how much this 37-game sliver means, the digital manifestation of that would look something like this:

 

 

(That is empty space. As in, a 37-game sliver to start the season really doesn’t mean anything for this particular team. If you have to explain the joke, it’s not that funny. And if you have to use parentheses to explain the explanation, that’s even worse. Let’s forget this paragraph ever happened.)

Every year, over the first week or two or, in this case, six, the panic meter flares like a Geiger counter on Three Mile Island, and succumbing to seven shutout innings from Adam Wainwright on Sunday did little to wipe away the froth from the mouths of the rabidly aggrieved. Never mind that during one 37-game stretch last season, the 103-win, World Series championship-capturing Cubs went 17-20. That came during the middle of the season and is thus a footnote instead of an attempt to anthropomorphize Chicken Little.

So, please, fans of the …

1. Chicago Cubs, accept this prescription of chill pills and realize that even if the first six weeks of the season prevent the Cubs from finishing the year with triple digits in the win column, their slow start does not affect them in nearly the same way as it does fringe contenders or teams with a surplus of impending free agents.

The Cubs know they are in this for six months. They know there is no reasonable reality in which Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all finish the season with sub-.400 slugging percentages. And they know that a year after turning 74.5 percent of balls in play into outs, they may not be quite as good, but they’re certainly not the 20th-best team in baseball at it. They know, too, that help is but a phone call away, and even if those phone calls haven’t started in earnest, they know they can any moment.

Here’s the truth about the Cubs: They already are canvassing the significant market of starting pitchers likely to be available before the trade deadline, according to sources. Much of who’s available depends on the next month or so, when the standings shake out and give teams a truer sense of their prospects for 2017. The potential list, though, gives Chicago plenty of possibilities.

Beyond the always-available types like Jose Quintana and Jeremy Hellickson are Gerrit Cole, Yu Darvish, Johnny Cueto, Ervin Santana, Jason Vargas, Sonny Gray, Alex Cobb, Marco Estrada, Matt Harvey, even Zack Greinke. At least a quarter of those dozen will be dealt, and that might be on the light side. Even if the …

2. Cleveland Indians showed last October that a team need not trot out a rotation full of aces to come within a game of winning the World Series, it in no way lessens the benefits of regular-season excellence, whether it’s home-field advantage or facing the disadvantaged wild-card winner in the first round.

And right now, as the Indians linger in second place in the American League Central, behind a Minnesota Twins team that’s winning even though it sort of doesn’t want to – hello, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Arizona – Cleveland knows exactly why: Its starting pitching has been among the worst in baseball.

Four of its opening day rotation members have 5.00-plus ERAs. Corey Kluber is on the DL. Danny Salazar’s existence seems binary: either strike a guy out or he scores. Great as Carlos Carrasco has been, one-man rotations tend not to be conducive to winning, so the Indians either need to improve – Mike Clevinger has looked good filling in for Kluber – or run the risk of dragging down the excellence of their lineup and bullpen, which has an MLB-best 1.90 ERA.

The Indians’ choice is rather simple: Do they believe, after last October, they are built for another playoff run? When it comes to winning the Central, they needn’t worry. The division, even with mediocre starting pitching, is theirs, barring some sort of catastrophic injury. For small markets, the issue is just how much prospect capital to forfeit in search of a championship. Not that history should have any bearing on Cleveland’s decision-making, but the Indians’ near-70-year drought doesn’t exactly lessen their urgency.

Cleveland and Chicago are the obvious don’t-panic candidates. Earlier this week, a scout offered a third, and not only was it a bit surprising, it came with a both prediction: He thinks the …

3. Toronto Blue Jays not only will challenge for an AL wild-card spot but potentially come back to steal the East. And on cue, just after he said this, the Blue Jays ripped off a five-game winning streak to climb to 17-21.

Remember, this is a team without Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin. This is a team, once it gets healthy, that can trot out a rotation of Happ, Liriano, Estrada, Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman – and, beyond that, Joe Biagini, the Rule 5 bullpen gem of last season who in a pair of starts this year looked more than passable in a rotation role.

The scout’s argument is simple: The Blue Jays aren’t likely to sell because they have too much talent on both sides of the ball. It’s compelling, too. Don’t forget, the Blue Jays were 19-19 through 38 games last season. And while this version of Toronto misses Edwin Encarnacion’s bat and could use another relief pitcher, the talent remains, and with most of its best assets in the starting-pitching department and the market there buyers’ as it is, the calculus for the Blue Jays, particularly if they tread water, may be to stand pat. Facing a similar situation are the …

4. Texas Rangers, about whom the same scout isn’t quite as bullish. It’s not just that half the Rangers’ lineup can’t crack the Mendoza Line. Nor that the back end of the rotation is a delightful smoke-and-mirror show, with Andrew Cashner’s 2.43 ERA despite an underwater strikeout-to-walk ratio (17 to 20) and no particular groundball predilection the clearest case of regression waiting to happen in the big leagues.

It’s that even with all the rotation fillers available, Yu Darvish is an ace – a legitimate, bona fide, Game 1 starter – and that teams can use to reload their farm systems. Jonathan Lucroy again would be the best catcher available, and so few elite ones exist, the market will be rich. The Rangers could be the darlings of July. Even if the AL looks like a big crapshoot at this point beyond the Astros, and the Rangers are capable of a week like the past one, when they won six straight to claw back to a game below .500, the idea of dumping is more than tempting.

Texas doesn’t know when it’s getting Cole Hamels back from an oblique strain. It doesn’t know what it’s getting from Tyson Ross after thoracic outlet surgery. The toughest part is that the Rangers are too good to say they’re out of it and jump the market. When you’re like the …

5. San Francisco Giants and sporting baseball’s second-worst run differential and third-worst record, on the other hand, the trade gods are beginning to hum the music to “Taps” and see whether the Giants execute a legitimate teardown or instead paint a wall here and replace a vanity there.

The latter is far likelier. This is not a good team. Since the All-Star break last year, the Giants are 45-66. Madison Bumgarner is out until August. The odd-year thing holds true. Still, even if Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford are 30, they are elite enough to team with Bumgarner and Brandon Belt for an excellent core. With whom the Giants complement that group is the question, and no sure things are coming from their minor league system anytime soon, leaving open the possibility of a Cueto trade – or one with Jeff Samardzija or Matt Moore perhaps.

Cueto is the fascinating case. The team that is trading for him assumes the single biggest risk in the market. If Cueto excels, he has an opt-out of his contract following the season and, in all likelihood, is off to free agency. Should he falter, Cueto could disregard the opt out and lock in to a four-year, $89 million deal, the sort that he almost certainly wouldn’t command if he finished the season poorly.

The perils in trading for Cueto are even greater than when the …

6. Kansas City Royals did it two years ago and he helped them win a World Series. Now the Royals are asking themselves a far more difficult question: Should they go for it this year, too?

The evidence in favor is scant. Before winning six of seven, the Royals were on pace to lose 108 and had the worst run differential in the AL. Today they’re merely tied for the worst record in the league and have the second-worst run differential. They’ve had the worst offense in baseball, and it’s not particularly close. The idea of their rotation maintaining a 3.41 ERA – fourth best in the major leagues now – into the latter three-quarters of the season is dubious. And what makes selling so compelling is the advantage the Royals have.

Understanding and admitting early that despite signs of life here and there that the Royals are less than likely to play into October this season means they can jump the trade market by soliciting trades, like, now. No other team. No wishy-washiness muddling the market. Just the Royals and enough contending teams that need what they have to make it happen.

Jason Vargas, the major league ERA leader at 1.01? Gone. Eric Hosmer, who’s back up to .298/.359/.411 after a conflagrant 10 days? He’ll find a home. Lorenzo Cain, a dynamic center fielder with an on-base percentage that starts with a 4? Yes, please. Mike Moustakas, he of the 30-homer power and solid third-base glove? Sure. And that’s not even including their last free agent-to-be of note, shortstop Alcides Escobar, and closer Kelvin Herrera, who would look good in any bullpen in baseball.

The Royals are not good, and with a minor league system as dire as theirs, pretending they are even partial contenders for the sake of clubhouse morale or some duty to the city would be a grave dereliction of duty. Surely a front office that built a team that made back-to-back World Series understands as much, even if pride can be a narcotic. It may be the thing that prevents the …

7. New York Mets from selling this summer. Like the Blue Jays, their disabled list is some Samuel Beckett-worthy depressive reading. Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, Jeurys Familia, Travis d’Arnaud, David Wright, Steven Matz, Seth Lugo. It’s like the Madoff karma finally came in earnest.

How can the Mets of Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey have the worst rotation ERA in baseball? Well, they do. And with Cespedes still nursing a hamstring – an injury with a scary level of recurrence – subsisting offensively isn’t easy, particularly when trying to counteract a pitching staff that has allowed the second most runs in baseball at 5.64 per game. And yet …

That should be the theme of the NL: “And yet.” And yet the Phillies, Marlins and Braves, three teams they play a total of 33 more times, are quite bad. (Though, it should be noted, the Mets are a meh 12-12 against them thus far.) And yet of the teams over .500 in the NL right now, only the Nationals, Dodgers, Cardinals and Rockies came into this season with hopes of contending. And yet Amed Rosario could arrive (and thrive) any day now, and they could ship out an outfielder to fortify their pitching, and just like that, the Mets aren’t fixed, per se, but they’re in decent enough shape to justify not moving anyone as the July 31 deadline approaches.

Is it time for the Mets to panic? Sure, because it’s New York, and they’re going to anyway. For a team that legitimately deserves to do so, though, fly all the way across the country and weep with the poor …

8. Seattle Mariners and their pitching staff that just can’t stay healthy. The Mariners’ four best starters sit on the DL today. Their staff ace at the moment is Ariel Miranda, who was going to begin the season at Triple-A until Drew Smyly got hurt.

There is trouble, and there is Ray LaMontagne trouble, and then there is Seattle Mariners trouble, which was reinforced by the six runs they put up over the weekend during Toronto’s four-game sweep at Rogers Centre. A hot-and-cold offense is tolerable if some semblance of pitching consistency is there to buttress it, but with Smyly, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma out for unknown periods and James Paxton a perpetual injury risk, the chance for all the Mariners’ offseason tinkering to succeed died before it even started in earnest.

Seattle isn’t particularly stocked with free agents-to-be, either, so a Mariners fire sale isn’t in the offing. It’s a rotten position in which Seattle finds itself, though the …

9. Pittsburgh Pirates’ disappointing season might compound itself if they start giving serious thought to deal Cole.

Teams call about him regularly. He is 26 years old. He’s got the second-hardest fastball among all starters this season. He owns a 4.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has two full seasons after this one until he hits free agency. Darvish and Cueto are nice short-term plays. Cole is the right play for the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Astros – the teams deep in young talent with windows of contention that go through at least 2019.

The Pirates themselves are just enough of a mess to entertain the idea. Starling Marte’s steroid suspension. Andrew McCutchen’s continued struggles. Jameson Taillon’s surgery for suspected testicular cancer. The 16-22 record. Cole staring at enormous arbitration raises each of the next two seasons. Now may be the time, which would eliminate one more team for the …

10. Chicago Cubs to have to worry about. Right now, they’re just up to their midseason tinkering, trying to understand what might actually need addressing (fifth starter … and perhaps more in the rotation) and what exactly they’re willing to give up to get it.

Could, say, Eddie Butler be the rotation solution as he was in his first turn, with six shutout innings. Is the big fastball that couldn’t play in Colorado, where he posted a 6.50 ERA over more than 150 innings, suddenly reinvigorated by the magic of Chicago, or whatever passes for that these days? Can Chris Bosio work an Arrieta Lite miracle on him?

At this point last season, the Cubs were 27-10. Today, they are 18-19. (Getty Images)

And does Ian Happ’s appearance with the Cubs over the weekend give Joe Maddon another Swiss Army player with whom to tinker, or is it simply a cameo that gives trade partners a sneak peak of how the 22-year-old is the sort of player around whom they might like to build a trade?

The Cubs sit in fourth place, behind the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers. Embarrassing is the wrong word. So is troublesome. This is just – it’s part of baseball, a good part, actually, where a team as great on paper as the Cubs are can be reminded that the delight of a 103-win, World Series championship-capturing season is indeed fragile.

Of course, it’s not altogether elusive, either. The Cubs’ record might not be good, but they are, and that will manifest itself accordingly. Someone might struggle – hell, two or three Cubs could – but the core is there, it’s still strong and that empty space about will be filled sooner than later with reinforcements that make this temporary lapse just another footnote.

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