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After spending much of the first half of the season looking up at the Milwaukee Brewers, the Chicago Cubs are finally gaining separation in the National League Central.
At 73-60 entering play Friday, they’re 3.5 games up on Milwaukee. They’ve won four straight and own the division’s best run differential at plus-94.
They’re chasing the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals for Senior Circuit supremacy, but the Cubbies appear primed for another October run.
In the meantime, here are five bold predictions for the regular season’s final month, based on stats, trends and a dash of gut feeling.
Keep in mind these are bold predictions, not impossible ones, so you won’t find anything about reacquiring Aroldis Chapman or turning Steve Bartman into an official ball boy.
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When the Cubs surrendered their top position-player prospect (Eloy Jimenez) and top pitching prospect (Dylan Cease) along with other pieces to acquire left-hander Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox, they expected consistent excellence.
Instead, Quintana has wobbled, posting a 4.50 ERA with the North Siders, surrendering six earned runs in two of his nine starts and logging more than six innings just once.
“He’s just over-amped, man,” said manager Joe Maddon, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. “This guy’s still trying to make an impression on us.”
That may be true. And the 28-year-old Quintana is locked into an affordable contract that runs through 2020 with a pair of club options.
In the here and now, the champions need him to perform consistently. Amped or not, he’s shown no signs of doing that.
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For much of the season, Jake Arrieta was a symbol of the Cubs’ head-scratching decline.
The right-hander and 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner posted a 4.35 ERA in the first half and looked frequently mediocre.
Since the All-Star break, his ERA is a cool 1.59 and his record sits at 6-1.
“It got away from him for a bit,” Maddon said of Arrieta’s struggles, per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. “And he just worked his way back. He’s going back to the top again.”
That’s great news for the Cubs heading into the postseason and even better news for Arrieta heading into free agency this winter.
What could make it even better? How about a third career no-hitter?
The Cubs play 22 of their remaining 29 games against teams with losing records, meaning Arrieta should draw at least a couple of pliable opponents.
He twirled a no-no against the Dodgers in 2015 and the Cincinnati Reds, who are on the Cubs’ September schedule, in 2016.
The trifecta isn’t likely, but Jake is on a roll—and these are bold predictions, after all.
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Does predicting a blown save really qualify as “bold?” It does when the closer is Wade Davis.
The right-hander set a Cubs franchise record by recording his 27th consecutive save Tuesday, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com. Dating back to last season with the Kansas City Royals, Davis has now saved 33 straight without a miscue.
“He has a starting pitcher’s mentality as a closer,” Maddon said, per Rogers. “He has weapons for righties or lefties. It doesn’t matter the hitter. Good for him because that [record] will probably last for a while.”
Maybe so. However, it says here Davis’ perfect run won’t last, and he’ll have at least one ninth-inning hiccup before Game 162.
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After clubbing 21 homers and making the NL All-Star team in 2016, Addison Russell appeared primed for a full-blown breakout.
Instead, the Cubs’ shortstop has dealt with injuries and off-field issues while slashing a modest .241/.305/.417 in 97 games.
Russell hasn’t played since Aug. 2 because of a foot injury, and his recovery hit a snag Thursday. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune wrote: “[An] MRI revealed Russell re-aggravated plantar fasciitis in his right foot and will be out for at least three more weeks. He had been planning to return this week but aggravated the injury while on rehab at Triple-A Iowa.”
“At least three weeks.” Those are four ominous words for the Cubs, who are extremely thin at shortstop behind Javier Baez.
The hope is Russell comes back strong before the postseason. The pessimistic take is that little has gone right for the 23-year-old up to now.
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Kyle Schwarber is hitting .199 on the season and only .238 in August.
On the other hand, the 24-year-old bopper clubbed a pair of two-run home runs Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates and now has four homers in his last seven games.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a sign of life.
We’ve seen what Schwarber can do. He hit 16 homers in 69 games his rookie year, and last season returned from a horrific April knee injury to get some huge October knocks.
Now, after struggling mightily, he looks like he could go on a late fence-clearing binge that would transform the Cubs’ lineup from stout to fearsome.
“I’m a confident person and still believe in myself,” Schwarber said, per David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune. “Even in the first half, I believed.”
All statistics current as of Thursday and courtesy of MLB.com and Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.