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updated: 7/17/2014 9:03 PM

Cubs will play big role in NL Central

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  • Cubs prospect Javier Baez, right, is greeted by third base coach Omar Malave, left, after hitting a two-run home run for the Worlds in the sixth inning of the All-Star Futures baseball game against the United States, Sunday, July 13, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

      Cubs prospect Javier Baez, right, is greeted by third base coach Omar Malave, left, after hitting a two-run home run for the Worlds in the sixth inning of the All-Star Futures baseball game against the United States, Sunday, July 13, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
    Associated Press

  • Jake Arrieta's now the ace of the starting rotation, and there are two spots for the Cubs to give some young pitchers a look.

      Jake Arrieta's now the ace of the starting rotation, and there are two spots for the Cubs to give some young pitchers a look.
    Associated Press

 
 

How about this? The Cubs are going to have a big say in the National League Central in the unofficial second half of the season.

No, they aren't going to win the division. But they do have 32 games left with the Reds, Brewers, Pirates and Cardinals.

Can you say possible major spoiler? You can, but Cubs manager Rick Renteria won't.

"We play a lot of games against those guys, but I'm looking at it more of us going out and playing our game and letting the results take care of themselves, and if they happen to be as a consequence something that changes the direction of another club, so be it," Renteria said.

"But I think more than anything it's us just going out and continuing to try to play good baseball."

It's going to be a challenge for the Cubs again to avoid a 100-loss season, especially with the Fourth of July trade of starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland.

But in addition to the challenges, opportunities abound.

"I think there are more opportunities before us," Renteria said. "We have a chance to continue to grind, to play the game. We need to understand that we're not playing just to get through August and September and to finish July up. The mentality is to keep playing so that you feel like you want to keep playing beyond August and September.

"I think as long as they (Cubs players) continue to play the game and give themselves a chance to win every single ballgame and play collectively as they should, we'll always, hopefully, be competitive and come out with some victories."

With that in mind, here some of the opportunities that lie ahead for the Cubs:

Wreaking havoc

Well, would you look at that NL Central? At the end of June, the Milwaukee Brewers led the defending NL champion Cardinals by 6½ games.

The Reds and Pirates, both under .500 at the end of May, were just beginning to find their sea legs as June ended. The Reds were 7 games behind the Brewers, and the Pirates were 8 back. Both teams won wild cards last year.

But as the all-star break hit, the Brewers found themselves losers of eight of their previous 10 games. For a day last week, the Cardinals caught Milwaukee in the standings, and at the break they trailed the Brewers by a game, with the Reds being 1½ back and the Pirates 3½ back.

Where do the Cubs fit into all of this? They have 10 games left against the Brewers, including three at Miller Park to end the season. The Cubs also have 10 left against the Cardinals and six each against the Reds and Pirates.

Starting rotation

This we know for sure: Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood and Jake Arrieta will pitch the three games this weekend in Arizona.

Beyond that, the Cubs will fill the rest of the rotation with call-ups from Class AAA Iowa. We've already seen Dallas Beeler, Tsuyoshi Wada and Kyle Hendricks, and we're likely to see all three again in the second half.

Left-hander and Northwestern product Eric Jokisch also is at Iowa, and he could get a look.

In the end, it will be up to the top three pitchers to step up in the second half, and only Arrieta has been consistently good among them.

Giving the kids a look:

While everybody was talking about Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, Arisimendy Alcantara was coming up to the big leagues, and now he's daring the Cubs to send him back to Iowa.

Alcantara, a second baseman-outfielder, has given the Cubs some spark, speed and energy. It also helps that he is 9-for-23 (.391) in his first five big-league games, with 3 doubles, a triple, a homer, 5 RBI and a stolen base.

The original plan was to keep Alcantara for a couple of days while second baseman Darwin Barney was on paternity leave. But Alcantara has staked his claim, and he may not go back to Iowa any time soon, if at all.

Bryant is the closest of the Cubs' top prospects to making the major leagues, but team president Theo Epstein said earlier it's unlikely Bryant would be brought up this season.

If Alcantara brought excitement, just think what Bryant might do, even in a September call-up. At Class AA Tennessee this year, he went .355/.458/.702 with 22 homers and 58 RBI. That earned him a promotion to Iowa, where he is at .322/.404/.701 with 9 homers and 23 RBI.

If the Cubs are careening toward 100 losses in September, a little diversion couldn't hurt, could it?

bmiles@dailyherald.com

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