CLEVELAND — After being interviewed by a couple of Chicago reporters Monday at the All-Star Game, Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu had a question he needed answered.
“Are the Cubs going to make the playoffs or what?” the former Cub asked.
Well, probably. Uh, maybe. Who knows?
“They’re the most talented team in that division,” LeMahieu said. “Kind of a rough stretch right now, huh? They’ll be fine.”
Cubs fans aren’t the only ones puzzled by the team’s lack of consistency in the first half. All around the All-Star Game festivities, baseball people were asking what has happened to the Cubs and why they can’t separate from the mosh pit known as the National League Central.
After a four-day break before the second half begins Friday, will they be ready to get their mojo back?
“I won’t tell you we’re ready; we’ve got to play and get it back,” shortstop Javier Baez said. “We know it’s on us right now. We’ve got to go back to pitch by pitch and inning by inning. Not forget about winning, but we decide who wins in the nine innings.
“First of all, we’re the Chicago Cubs and everybody talks about us even before the World Series. A lot of people and fans are expecting big things from us. Obviously we’re trying, but we had a lot of pressure on us. Once the season started (that pressure) kind of went down a little bit, (but) the struggle was there and it kind of came up again.
“It’s part of the game, making mistakes, failure. We’ve just got to make adjustments and get back on track.”
The onus is on manager Joe Maddon to make sure it gets back on track in the final year of a contract the sides agreed not to renegotiate until the season ends. Several national media members at the All-Star Game spoke of Maddon’s future as a fait accompli, with the only question whether he’ll last the rest of the season.
While President Theo Epstein hasn’t blamed Maddon for the mediocre record (47-43), he made a point in the offseason of saying the Cubs lacked “urgency” in 2018, and last week Epstein added: “The first half this year hasn’t been as clean as we’d like and as heads-up as we’d like and maybe as intense as we’d like.”
The manager is mostly responsible for those departments. So what can Maddon do that he hasn’t done to breathe life back into the Cubs?
“I honestly don’t think there’s anything else he can do,” third baseman Kris Bryant said. “I’ve seen a big change in him, just how he approaches each and every guy. He’s way more involved. He’s talkative. He’s positive every day. I love him. I love the way he runs the team. He’s been doing everything right for us.
“We have to play better to show that he deserves to be here. A lot of that falls on us. We just haven’t performed the way we should. I can think of a handful of ballgames that we should’ve won, and that whole narrative would be much different. But it hasn’t been that way, and we hope to change it certainly so he’s not getting that blame.”
The players aren’t naive. Everyone knows Maddon’s future will be debated during the second half if they don’t play better. Epstein and Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero, knew it could be a distraction when they agreed in November to table discussions of a contract extension.
It’s no different from Dusty Baker’s status in 2006, three years after getting the Cubs within five outs of the World Series. From the All-Star break on, everyone speculated Baker was gone. By October he was, along with President Andy MacPhail, who resigned.
“I’m not worried about Joe,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “We have 2 1/2 months to go. After that, I can’t say much about those conversations. I’m just trying to enjoy Joe as much as I can and looking forward to keep playing for him.”
Fittingly, the Cubs start the second half Friday against Clint Hurdle’s Pirates. Maddon’s Fourth of July eruption in Pittsburgh, directed at the manager he called “Clinton,” was widely viewed as an attempt to end the Cubs hibernation.
“It’s more of a spark we needed to come together as a team,” Bryant said. “We were in a lull there, and Joe took it upon himself to kind of light that spark for us.”
Adding to the suspense is the July 31 trade deadline. Will the Cubs deal one of their stars, and if so, which one? Can they hand out $300 million or so to both Baez and Bryant down the road while also re-signing Contreras?
Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, said keeping Bryant should be a no-brainer for the Ricketts family.
“When a player is successful, you’d always say he’s a candidate for (a long-term deal),” Boras said. “Why wouldn’t the owner want to? Who can replicate his performance? I don’t know of anyone that plays four positions and is an All-Star and hits in the middle of the lineup and has an OPS of .950.
“So, understanding that, what owner wouldn’t want him?”
Asked if Addison Russell, another Boras client, is still a good fit with the Cubs after a so-so performance following his return from a 40-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy, Boras seemed less optimistic.
“Addison is back playing and reaching his level of normalcy,” Boras said. “He’s a great shortstop, a great middle infielder, really skilled and a lot of teams want him. As to where he fits and what goes forward, that’s going to be a value choice on the part of the Cubs.”
The only known entering the second half is that everything is up in the air, and Epstein will have difficult decisions to make if the Cubs don’t live up to expectations.
The clock is ticking.