Chicago Cubs: Health key for team entering final week of first half

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 09: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs bats against the Colorado Rockies at Wrigley Field on June 9, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Rockies defeated the Cubs 5-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 09: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Chicago Cubs bats against the Colorado Rockies at Wrigley Field on June 9, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Rockies defeated the Cubs 5-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

With several key players missing off the roster, this final week of the first half should be about one thing: getting the Chicago Cubs healthy and on the field.

Entering play Saturday, the Chicago Cubs sat at .500 on 17 different occasions so far this season. By a stroke of luck, the team remains in the hunt for a second-straight National League Central title. With less than a month till the trade deadline, Chicago may get reinforcements from within the organization rather than relying on trades.

Ben Zobrist returned from his wrist injury this weekend, giving Joe Maddon one of his most trusted veterans back after a trip to the 10-day DL. 2017 hasn’t been a typical season for the reigning World Series MVP. He owns a .223/.321/.394 slash-line – with an OPS down over 100 points from last year.

As Zo rejoined the team, outfielder Mark Zagunis headed back to Triple-A Iowa. He’ll join Kyle Schwarber, who continues to work on his offensive approach with the I-Cubs. In Friday night’s game, he belted a pair of home runs and drew a bases-loaded walk.

Hopefully, with some rest for his ailing wrist, Zobrist can bring some better at-bats with him to Chicago. He hasn’t consistently worked counts like he has in his career – and his numbers show it. As a team, the Cubs have been horribly back-and-forth in almost every regard. Consistency is key – and this club is yet to find it over the course of the first 81 games of the season.

Chicago Cubs
Chicago Cubs /

Chicago Cubs

Jason Heyward, who is sidelined while a cut on his hand heals, is reportedly nearing a return. But, before he comes back to the Cubs, he’ll need a rehab assignment. Realistically, don’t expect to see him back before the end of the week.

The 27-year-old outfielder is batting .258/.315/.399 on the year – a drastic improvement upon his first year on the North Side. At the season’s halfway mark, Heyward has six home runs. In all of 2016, he hit just seven.

Hendricks throwing, recovering

Outside of those two key veterans, the Chicago Cubs are awaiting the return of starter Kyle Hendricks.

The right-hander represents an interesting situation for Chicago. Mike Montgomery, who has filled Hendricks’ rotation spot, has been very solid. The real question is who becomes the odd-man out?

On paper, John Lackey moves to the pen. He’s been downright awful this year and seems to have finally hit the wall. But, knowing Lackey, that won’t sit well – and could be the latest clubhouse drama for the Cubs. Given Montgomery’s past in the bullpen, he’s probably headed back there to give Chicago a quality left-hander option.

Eddie Butler, who has struggled to extend his starts in terms of longevity, may also head back to the bullpen when Hendricks returns. Brett Anderson is also close to ready after making several rehab starts.

Regardless, Hendricks continues to near a return from tendonitis in his hand. According to a recent report, the right-hander could begin a rehab assignment over the All-Star Break and be back mid-July. Prior to his injury, he posted a 4.03 ERA – roughly in-line with his 4.50 FIP.

Either way, for Chicago to make a second-half run, they need Hendricks to pitch like a middle-of-the-rotation guy. I personally think it’s unrealistic to expect the type of numbers he posted last season, when he won the ERA title. But if he can come back with a 3.00-3.50 ERA and give the Cubs six or seven innings every five days, Hendricks would be a nice shot in the arm.

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With these three guys back after the All-Star Break, hopefully putting up numbers like they’re capable of, the Cubs’ lineup would look much more balanced. Throw in Kyle Schwarber into the mix and this team may (for the most part) avoid the trade market, counting on internal options to provide a boost down the stretch.