First-place Chicago Cubs still have issues to face

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish pitches a simulated game before a baseball game between the Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Chicago.

    Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish pitches a simulated game before a baseball game between the Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Chicago.

 
 
Updated 7/18/2018 7:43 PM

The all-star break comes to an early end for the Chicago Cubs in a big way this weekend when they host the St. Louis Cardinals in a five-game series.

With a day-night doubleheader Saturday, the Cubs will play 12 games in 11 days right out of the second-half chute.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Unlike last year, when they were two games under .500 and 5½ games behind Milwaukee in the National League Central, the Cubs are in a position of strength today. They are 55-38, and they lead the reeling Brewers by 2½ games in the standings and by 5 games in the loss column.

Dealing from a position of strength is always preferable, and the Cubs will want in increase that strength. Here are a few areas to watch in the second half.

The Darvish situation:

The Cubs could get some clarity on Yu Darvish's future as early as Thursday, when they reconvene at Wrigley Field.

Darvish, whom the Cubs signed to a six-year, $126 million contract in February, has not pitched since May 20 because of right-triceps tendinitis. An attempted comeback in late June was halted by an elbow impingement.

If the Cubs can get Darvish back by early August, that could be the equivalent of picking up a pitcher at the July 31 nonwaiver trading deadline.

That brings us to our next area.

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The trade market:

Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Theo Epstein have been active in the July trade market since they arrived in Chicago in the fall of 2011. In their early years, they were sellers at the trade deadline, obtaining prospects for veteran players during losing seasons.

That changed in 2015, when the Cubs became contenders and buyers as they added players for the stretch drive and the postseason.

Even if Darvish does return soon, Epstein and Hoyer may try to add an arm for the rotation and also for a bullpen that has been very good but is in danger of being overtaxed.

The NL Central:

The Cardinals come to town with a new manager as Mike Shildt has taken over as interim boss after Mike Matheny was fired before the all-star break amid clubhouse chaos, some of it surrounding Matheny's relationship with former Cub Dexter Fowler.

The Cubs lead the third-place Cardinals (48-46) by 7½ games and a strong homestand can go a long way toward ending the Cardinals' chances of contending.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Cards may end up hiring a big-name manager such as Joe Girardi or Dusty Baker, both of whom have the Cubs in their histories. It's pretty clear the Cardinals weren't enjoying life under the humorless Matheny, and we'll be watching for the new-manager bounce.

The Brewers also have problems. They led the NL Central for most of the first half, but they limped into the break on a six-game losing streak and a 2-8 mark over their past 10 games.

The Cubs and Brewers rank second and fourth, respectively, in team ERA in the NL, and their bullpens are ranked 2-3.

In addition to a losing streak, the Brewers are dealing with more controversy as reliever Josh Hader must complete sensitivity training after racially offensive tweets he made as a teenager came to light this week.

The Pittsburgh Pirates don't figure to contend, but they're within a game of .500 at 48-49, and their games against Central foes could have an effect on the final standings. The same can be said of the last-place Cincinnati Reds (43-53), who have played well under interim manager Jim Riggleman, another former Cubs skipper.

• Twitter: @BruceMiles2112

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