With optimism low, Cubs will hope starting pitchers can pick it up

The Cubs cleared the clubhouse last summer, then weren't very aggressive in the offseason.

So there's no reason to act surprised by the slow and sloppy start to this season. The Cubs took their five-game losing streak to San Diego to open a six-game road trip late Monday.

When the season began, there was hope the Cubs might be able to hang around .500, maybe stay within shouting distance of wild card contention.

But if this 100-loss pace continues, the team could be in store for another dreary march to the trade deadline, with catcher Willson Contreras and pitcher Kyle Hendricks set to re-create the sad goodbyes of last July.

The outlook seemed especially bleak during the Cubs' 0-5 homestand against the White Sox and Dodgers.

"We've played a couple teams lately that feel like we're chasing that kind of championship-caliber baseball," manager David Ross said after Sunday's loss. "We'll get there. I think there's a lot of positives in where we're going, but when you play teams like this, you see how fundamentally sound you have to be. We're going to try to get there as fast as we possibly can."

Optimism is in short supply, but the best chance for a turnaround probably rests with the starting pitchers. Throughout his career, Hendricks had a tendency to start slowly and pick it up in May.

Marcus Stroman tossed 7 shutout innings against Milwaukee in his last start. Justin Steele was sharp at the start of Sunday's game against the Dodgers.

Stroman was originally scheduled to pitch Sunday night, but went on the injured list with no designation, so it appears to be COVID-related. Then Steele left the mound before the start of the fifth inning with left thumb soreness. So both Stroman and Steele are questionable to pitch on this road trip, but Steele suggested he'll be fine in a few days.

"I felt really good out there as far as commanding all my pitches, felt good with everything," Steele said. "I'd say the same for my last start."

Add in the fact that Wade Miley threw four scoreless innings in Iowa last Thursday in a rehab start, and maybe the Cubs can cobble together a competitive stretch if Hendricks, Stroman, Steele, Miley and Drew Smyly are all pitching well.

The Cubs' anemic offense will be tougher to fix. They've scored 12 runs in the last nine games, hitting .168 as a team since the 21-run explosion against Pittsburgh on April 23.

The options here are limited. Getting Clint Frazier and Andrelton Simmons off the injured list in a few weeks probably won't help much. Top prospect Brennen Davis is hitting .195 in Iowa, so he may not reach the big leagues at all this season.

The Cubs announced plans Sunday to send Frank Schwindel to Triple A to help work his way out of a slump. But there were multiple reports of Schwindel taking a commercial flight to San Diego on Monday morning, so the plan changed.

The Cubs' best hitter over the last 15 days is Contreras with a .258 average; second is shortstop Nico Hoerner at .237. After good starts, Seiya Suzuki and Ian Happ have slumped badly.

"I think you've got a lot of guys in this locker room that really appreciate being here and do not take it for granted," Hoerner said. "There's never been a day here where I felt like anyone is just going through the motions or anything like that, so I really appreciate that from the group. Obviously, there has been challenges at times too, but nothing I'd change about the group of people in this room."

Being more competitive would be a welcome change. Then again, nothing the Cubs have done lately was meant to create immediate success.

Robertson to IL:

Monday's moves included closer David Robertson going on the injured list with no designation. Like Marcus Stroman, that likely means it's COVID-related. First baseman Frank Schwindel returned from Iowa, after never playing in a game there; pitcher Adrian Sampson was sent to Iowa, while the Cubs called up left-handed pitcher Connor Menez. Menez was acquired in the Rule 5 draft from San Francisco and posted a 2.16 ERA in seven games for Iowa.

Manager David Ross told reporters left-hander Wade Miley would be activated from the injured list to make his official Cubs debut and start Tuesday against the Padres.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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