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MLB at the break: Cubs humbled by first-half flop

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

July 10, 2017 02:04 AM
Anthony Rizzo is batting .259 for the Cubs, who go into the All-Star break under .500. The defending World Series champs face a lot of problems, beginning with their poor starting pitching.
© USA Today Sports Images

Heroes in the fall, humbled by summer, the Chicago Cubs are in the midst of a fall from grace. And it appears Joe Maddon forgot to pack the parachutes.

It’s too easy to overreact to short bursts of bad baseball. During a six-month season, even elite teams will experience some losing streaks. Just past the halfway point, the Cubs flop into the All-Star break with a 43-45 record.

Who’s to blame? A finger can be pointed in several directions.

“There are a lot of problems on that team,” said Sunset Station sports book director Chuck Esposito, a suddenly frustrated Cubs fan.

The World Series champions returned with mostly the same team intact. Dexter Fowler, center fielder and leadoff hitter, took the money and ran to St. Louis. Veteran catcher David Ross, a clubhouse leader, danced into retirement. Otherwise, these are supposed to be the same Cubs.

But after the big street party and banner raising in Chicago, there are headaches and a hangover.

The No. 1 problem is the starting rotation. Jon Lester serves as the latest sad example. Lester was knocked out early Sunday, surrendering 10 runs and failing to survive the first inning in a blowout loss to Pittsburgh at Wrigley Field. The previous day, Jake Arrieta served up a two-run homer in the sixth inning of a loss to the Pirates.

Lester (5-6, 4.25 ERA) and Arrieta (8-7, 4.35) have made a total of 37 starts this season, with only 18 combined quality starts. Arrieta has lost velocity on his fastball and his pinpoint command of two years ago has vanished.

The soft-tossing Kyle Hendricks was not pitching well in 11 starts before hitting the disabled list. John Lackey has been hit so hard, he could have been named the Home Run Derby starting pitcher on Monday in Miami. Lackey (5-9, 5.20) has been rocked for 24 homers in 99 innings.

The rotation is not aging well and is in need of being rebuilt. Fortunately for team president Theo Epstein, he has a stocked farm system and the financial resources to fix it.

Epstein made one brilliant move in the offseason by dealing Jorge Soler, an overrated outfield prospect, to Kansas City for closer Wade Davis. Soler has two homers and 33 strikeouts in 88 at-bats for the Royals. Davis is the Cubs’ lone All-Star.

It’s not as if third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo have turned into bums. Far from it. Still, Bryant is batting .269 and Rizzo .259, and something in the .300 neighborhood is expected.

The Cubs have too many other slumping hitters — Addison Russell (.230), Ben Zobrist (.214) and Kyle Schwarber (.178), to name a few — and their team defense has been sloppy, to top it off.

Maddon might have set the Cubs off on the wrong foot by putting Schwarber, a power bat best used in the middle of the lineup, in the leadoff spot in April. Schwarber slipped into a funk and needed a trip to Triple-A Iowa.

An unconventional manager, Maddon is accustomed to pulling odd strings and getting the right results. When those moves backfire, Joe Cool should get second-guessed. In a panic and sweating it out, Maddon mismanaged his pitchers so badly that he almost blew Game 7 of the World Series. He was lucky to get off the hook.

“I think all of Maddon’s tinkering is really hurting that team,” Esposito said. “He was batting the pitcher eighth for a while. If that was the most ingenious thing to do, you would think every team in baseball would do it, not just Joe Maddon and the Cubs.

“The one thing for me that really lacks with the Cubs, it looks like they are not having fun. But the one thing that really helps is they play in the National League Central.”

The Cubs, who have a break-even run differential, trail Milwaukee (50-41) by 5½ games at the break. The Brewers, with a plus-45 run differential, just took two of three games from the Yankees in New York.

The Westgate sports book reposted odds to win divisions on Monday, and the Cubs are minus-110 favorites to win the Central. Who’s betting on the Brewers at 3-2?

The Cubs can make changes before the trade deadline and make a strong push in the second half. Counting them out is premature, even when a 10-run first inning for the Pirates feeds into the perception this is just not the Cubs’ year.

Before the first pitch was thrown, sharp bettors played the Cubs under their regular-season win total of 95½. A 53-21 record in the final 74 games is required to top that total. Winning a weak division to reach the playoffs is setting the bar high enough.

The best news: Unlike the NCAA, MLB will not come back years later and wipe the 2016 World Series championship from the history books. There should be no panic in the streets around Wrigley.

But the sharps were right to bet on the Cubs losing their edge this summer.

MLB notes and fast facts at the break

Aaron Judge is a feel-good story of the first half. After the Yankees called him up last summer, Judge struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats. The 6-foot-7 bomber now leads the major leagues with 30 home runs, and he’s batting .329 compared to .179 last year. Still, New York is stuck in a tailspin. The Yankees were 38-23 on June 12, but they have not won back-to-back games since while going 7-18 in their past 25. …

The Yankees are the only team in the majors not to be shut out this year. …

Boston (50-39) leads New York by 3½ games in the AL East. The Red Sox will emerge from the break with their top four starters — Drew Pomeranz (Friday), Chris Sale (Saturday), Rick Porcello (Sunday, first game) and David Price (Sunday night) — lined up to face the Yankees at Fenway Park. …

After a loss to the Giants in San Francisco on April 24, the Dodgers were 9-11 and called up first baseman/outfielder Cody Bellinger the next day. Los Angeles (61-29) is 52-18 since, and Bellinger has 25 homers in 70 games. …

The Dodgers are 17-2 in Clayton Kershaw’s starts this season, despite Kershaw already allowing a career-high 17 home runs. …

Houston (60-29) has a plus-162 run differential, trailing only the Dodgers (plus-163). The Astros hammered Toronto 19-1 on Sunday in the most lopsided win in team history. …

Nothing is guaranteed for the Astros or Dodgers. This note from Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times: “Since the beginning of the wild-card era in 1995, only five times in 22 years has one of the teams with the best record in baseball eventually won the World Series. This is only 23 percent. This is what great statistical minds mean when they say that the playoffs are a crapshoot.” …

The San Francisco Giants are a wreck, and that’s not just a reference to Madison Bumgarner’s dirt bike accident in the Colorado mountains in April. The Giants went into last year’s All-Star break with a 57-33 record, the best in baseball. San Francisco (34-56) now trails the Dodgers by an astounding 27 games in the NL West. …

Teams hunting for starting pitching before the trade deadline should look to the Bay Area. Oakland will ask a lot for right-hander Sonny Gray. The Giants could be ready to part with right-hander Johnny Cueto at a cheaper price. …

The Angels were 26-27 on May 28, when Mike Trout suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb. Without Trout, L.A. went 19-20, much better than expected considering Trout led the team in batting average (.337), home runs (16), RBIs (36) and on-base percentage (.461). The decision on their win total of 79 could go either way.


Closing numbers at South Point sports book

(With records at All-Star break)

Chicago Cubs 95.5 (43-45)

Los Angeles Dodgers 94 (61-29)

Cleveland Indians 92.5 (47-40)

Boston Red Sox 91.5 (50-39)

Washington Nationals 91 (52-36)

Houston Astros 90 (60-29)

New York Mets 89 (39-47)

San Francisco Giants 88.5 (34-56)

Seattle Mariners 86 (43-47)

Toronto Blue Jays 85.5 (41-47)

Texas Rangers 84.5 (43-45)

St. Louis Cardinals 84 (43-45)

New York Yankees 83 (45-41)

Detroit Tigers 82.5 (39-48)

Pittsburgh Pirates 82.5 (42-47)

Baltimore Orioles 80.5 (42-46)

Colorado Rockies 80 (52-39)

Los Angeles Angels 79 (45-47)

Tampa Bay Rays 78.5 (47-43)

Arizona Diamondbacks 77.5 (53-36)

Kansas City Royals 77 (44-43)

Miami Marlins 76 (41-46)

Minnesota Twins 75.5 (45-43)

Atlanta Braves 75 (42-45)

Oakland A’s 74.5 (39-50)

Philadelphia Phillies 73 (29-58)

Milwaukee Brewers 70.5 (50-41)

Chicago White Sox 70 (38-49)

Cincinnati Reds 70 (39-49)

San Diego Padres 66 (38-50)

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