The Chicago Cubs return to Tropicana Field under much worse circumstances than 2017

It's been seven years since the Cubs came to St. Petersburg, but the situation is very different as the team finds their season spiralling away due to underperformance.
Chicago Cubs v Tampa Bay Rays
Chicago Cubs v Tampa Bay Rays / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

In the middle of a brutal stretch of baseball, the Chicago Cubs entered Tropicana Field on Tuesday night looking to reinvigorate their season against the Tampa Bay Rays. It marks the first time the Northsiders have been in St. Petersburg since 2017, and it couldn't come at a better time with the Rays similarly struggling coming off of a four-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles. Instead, the Cubs found another way to lose in the ninth when Hector Neris allowed a three-run walk-off home run amid a four-run inning.

Compared to the 2017 team, the situation couldn't be more different. The Cubs are tied for third place in the division with the Reds and remain 7 games back of the Brewers. While they're in the mix for a wild card spot, the same could be said for all but three teams in the National League right now. There's time, but there are next to no trends going in this team's favor that make you believe they can turn it around without help.

With a 97 wRC+ on the year, their offense ranks in the bottom half of the league which becomes even more of a problem when juxtaposed with poor baserunning including 28 outs made on the basepaths. It's not helping that the team sports uncharacteristically bad defense worth -19 defensive runs saved and a bullpen that lacks trustworthy arms to close down games. Usually, these issues combine in similar ways to become losses, such as on Tuesday when a lack of hitting in scoring position again left Neris, who has been shaky at best with a 4.75 xERA, to close with no margin for error.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that this team is right up against the luxury tax and is in the middle of its third season since Jed Hoyer and company sold away the old core. This is a team that should be coming into its own. Moreover, Hoyer's comments leading up to Tuesday's game showed a reluctance to make external moves, whether it be for Elias Diaz or Pete Alonso, that the team desperately needs.

The Cubs' last visit to Tropicana came in the thick of a playoff race

2017, however, was coming off the glow of a successful rebuild and a curse-breaking World Series win. And, while the team started sluggish, ending the first half at 43-45, they got better in the second half and were in good shape to win the division by the time they came face-to-face with the Rays in September. They had also taken a big swing by trading for Jose Quintana to round out the rotation.

Coming into Tropicana wasn't seen as a chance to turn around the season, but to put the emphasis on a successful, if messy, follow-up year to the 2016 team. After six straight wins, the Cubs featuring old favorites Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant, among others, looked like a complete team with control over their fate. Even with a slow start, they posted a 101 wRC+ to tie for eighth in the league, while also grading out well defensively and boasting a bullpen anchored by All-Star closer Wade Davis with a 2.30 ERA and 32 saves.

They showed how complete they were right away in the first game, too. Their stars shone with Kyle Schwarber hitting a home run and Baez delivering the game-winning RBI. Although they didn't cobble together much offense against Chris Archer, the bullpen featuring Carl Edwards Jr., Pedro Strop, and the shutdown man Davis was more than capable of keeping a 2-1 win in check.

Jon Lester would struggle in their next game against Tampa Bay, but it hardly mattered. At 49-25, the Cubs' blazing-hot second half was more than enough to win the division handily. They had survived a major step back by the team throughout the first half because of their depth and efforts to reinforce the team, and strong performances down the stretch from the players on the roster to live up to their reputation.

Timing in the season matters, but it's hard not to look back at the Cubs' last trip to Tropicana with a feeling that this current team could be doing so much more. This far in the rebuild, they have to start looking more like that 2017 team with sound baseball fundamentals and talent prevalent in the roster. Just as it was their last visit to St. Petersburg, the year also marked their last playoff win. Something has to change to break that streak, and it may take something of a similar size to the Quintana trade to fire everyone up.