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The reality of the Cubs’ situation is starting to sink in: ‘We’ve got to clean up some things’

MILWAUKEE—The Cubs haven’t won a series since beating the brewers twice within the first three days of the season, when Milwaukee started power pitchers Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff during those two games at Wrigley Field. Opening Day is the time to imagine the possibilities of a new-look offense, an established pitching infrastructure and a pinpoint system for defensive shifts. Eventually, the reality of a 162-game season sets in and strengths are revealed and weaknesses are exposed.

After Friday’s 11-1 loss at American Family Field, the Cubs are already 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers in the National League Central. The Brewers are ahead of last season’s 95-win pace, continuing to outperform external expectations with their winning formula. the Cardinals won 17 straight games last September, fired manager Mike Shildt after the playoffs and brought back Albert Pujols for a final run with Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. By the end of April, this division already looks like a two-team race.

“We’ve got to clean up some things,” Cubs manager David Ross said.

Ross isn’t on any kind of hot seat because the Cubs announced his contract extension — through at least the 2024 season — the day after Major League Baseball’s lockout ended. Ross won a division title during his first season on the job (the pandemic-shortened 2020 season) and a World Series during his last year as a player (the 2016 championship that will be the measuring stick for this rebuild). Players respect Ross for his high-level experience and communication style. Team officials appreciate the manager’s leadership skills and collaborative, open-minded approach. But while the Cubs are rebuilding, Ross is the one who has to face the cameras before and after every game.

“We got to clean up on the bases,” Ross said. “We got to clean up some of the mistakes we’ve made on the field. If we do that, we’re two or three games above where we’re at, in my opinion. It’s getting those details locked in. I think everything else is taking shape. We were able to rest some guys early on and kind of take it like an extended spring training. Guys have seemed to buy into their roles. I don’t think we’re the best version of ourselves yet, which is exciting to me. And we still got to get some guys going.”

The Cubs do have some bright spots. seiya suzuki looks like a Rookie of the Year frontrunner who could earn MVP votes over the course of his five-year, $85 million contract. Nico Hörner appears to be a big-league-caliber shortstop and a clubhouse leader. Ian Happ is locked in as a switch-hitter in the middle of the lineup. all star catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t been traded yet. A plus-6 run differential hints that the Cubs could see modest improvements after their 8-12 start.

Ross pointed to the three competitive games (one win) earlier this week in Atlanta against the defending World Series champs. If the Cubs get enough from their starting pitcher and take the lead, Ross can go to Chris Martin, Michael Givens and David Robertson and/or deploy Keegan Thompson, Rowan Wick and Scott Effross in certain situations. Outlasting Burnes on Opening Day and beating Woodruff in Game 2 showed Ross something about the offense’s potential: “Controlling the strike zone early against really good pitching was a signature of ours that hopefully sustains over the season.”

That lineup is filled with players who have not yet proven that they can sustain a high level of performance across a 162-game schedule. But that is what this season is mostly about for the Cubs, trying to figure out what they have and see who runs with the opportunity. The starting pitching, put simply, has been unsustainable if the Cubs are going to be a competitive team in 2022.

Kyle Hendricks gave up three homers on Friday night before the Brewers knocked him out of a 6-0 game in the fifth inning. Coming off the worst season of his career, Hendricks (1-2, 5.47 ERA) has struggled to get into the rhythm that he needs as more of a finesse pitcher. marcus stromanwho signed a three-year, $71 million contract before the lockout, has a 6.98 ERA and the Cubs haven’t won any of his four starts. Wade Miley hasn’t been activated yet as he’s scheduled to throw a bullpen session on Sunday in Milwaukee as he tries to catch up after dealing with left elbow inflammation.

Just because the bullpen looks good now doesn’t mean it will stay that way when the relievers are forced to absorb so many innings from one series to the next. The Cubs might also be down two pitchers by Monday, when the roster has to be reduced from 28 players to 26. Optioning two pitchers to Triple-A Iowa might make sense since the Cubs have three days off scheduled between May 2 and May 12. These roster cuts also figure to be an opportunity for president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, who predicted a flurry of activity around this time since so many teams punctuated decisions that normally would have been made at the end of spring training.

“Yeah, I’m not going to tell you, but I know (what we’re planning to do),” Ross said. “Every team has roster crunch time in a couple days, right? So everybody’s got to make their own decisions. I do feel like the market will be flooded with (players). That’s something they’ll look at (in the front office). I’m just focused on trying to navigate winning today.”

(Photo by Kyle Hendricks: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today)

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