There’s a lot to get into today for the off-day, the first of July, and the follow-up to that disastrous and humiliating Brewers series. All coming. Sadly.
But to tee things up for the day, I wanted to take a moment to look at the standings and provide a little July 1 context for where things stand.
First and foremost, you already know the really bad thing: the Cubs are now down 6.0 games in the NL Central, behind the Brewers, and 2.0 games ahead of the Reds and Cardinals. They are alone in second place – which does matter for future hoping – but only barely, and by quite a few games. How big is the Brewers’ lead? Consider that the other NL division races are separated by just 1.5 and 2.0 games. Consider that the Cubs are now almost closer to the second Wild Card spot (6.5 games) than the top of the division. Consider that the biggest divisional lead in the American League – White Sox over Indians – only just expanded to 4.0 games last night. Consider that this is the biggest lead in the division so far this year.
Coming back from down 6.0 in the division on July 1 is, of course not unprecedented. Those famous Nationals in 2019 were actually 7.0 games back on July 1 and in third place. So it’s not like you have to stretch to find a team that came back from even worse than where things stand for the Cubs, and then went on to win it all.
… but, then, that was an absolutely loaded Nationals roster that was shockingly underperforming very early in the year. By July 1 had won eight of their last nine and was 26-10 in their last 36! In other words, by July 1, despite being so far behind in the division, they were already the hottest team in baseball. That is not a tale you could tell about these Cubs.
How about recent Cubs teams that were behind in July (i.e., not 2016 or 2020)? Any encouragement there? Not really!
⇒ The 2015 Cubs were 10.5 games back on July 1 (remember how hot the Cardinals were that year?), and wound up getting back to only 3.0 games behind (winning 97 games in the process and claiming a Wild Card spot). But that team was young and developing and got infusions throughout the year, and it feels VERY different from this year’s club.
⇒ The 2017 Cubs were only 2.0 games back on July 1, but that increased to 5.5 games by the All-Star break and Theo Epstein later admitted that if they hadn’t been hot out of the break, they were gonna sell. They were hot, however, and wound up winning the division by 6.0 games.
⇒ The 2018 Cubs, who blew the division down the stretch thanks to a combination of an absurd scheduled, their own slumps, and the hot Brewers, were only 1.5 games back on July 1, and had built up a 5.0-game lead by early September.
⇒ The 2019 Cubs were actually tied for the division lead on July 1, topped out at a 3.0-game lead in early August, and, well, things did not go well from there.
So, on the whole, recent history doesn’t really include any examples of a Cubs team QUITE like this in QUITE this position coming back to win the division. That doesn’t mean they can’t – the recent past examples are few, and they don’t have anything to do with this Cubs roster, schedule, or the Brewers’ roster and schedule – it just means it would be notable. A team or two comes back from six-game-or-greater deficit every year. When they do it after July 1, it’s a little more memorable, and thanks to the Trade Deadline that looms at the end of the month, it’s less likely if you aren’t still pushing in.
Had we different feelings about the roster – more optimism about guys rebounding and other guys staying healthy and the rotation turning it around and infusions of young talent in the second half – we might be focusing more on the fact that the Cubs are alone in second place, behind a team with a tougher schedule ahead. But we had concerns about this roster from day one, and with key players continuously getting banged up and/or going through harrowing slumps, it’s not like those concerns have abated just because the Cubs played a great month of May in the softer part of their schedule.
Then you factor in the Brewers, who, although they’ll be playing a tougher schedule ahead, are starting to look like a better roster than earlier this year, with Christian Yelich healthy, Luis Urias (and Keston Hiura?) finally hitting, and Willy Adames having been added. And they will definitely be buying this month. The Brewers of late July could be an even better team than they are now, which is, yes, a pretty darn good team.
That is all to say, being down 6.0 games in the Central on July 1 is not, in isolation, a terrifying thing. But when you place it in context, it’s a little more souring.