Future of Chicago Cubs could depend on next few months

Watch the Chicago Cubs closely for the next two-and-a-half months.

It's not a stretch to say that the short-term and long-term future of the team will be determined by what happens between now and the end of September and then into October if the Cubs make the postseason.

The status of manager Joe Maddon and maybe even some of the "core" players on the team could be at stake, depending on the record between now and the end of the season.

Even though the Cubs underachieved in the first half, they enter the second leading the National League Central at 47-43 as they welcome the Pittsburgh Pirates (44-45) into Wrigley Field this weekend.

Here are some storylines to watch.

Bet on a deal

The July 31 trading deadline is fast approaching. Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer will make a deal or two. They've done so every year they've been in charge, whether it was trading away veterans for prospects during the rebuilding years (2012-14) or adding pieces to contending teams (2015-18).

The Cubs could use at least one other bullpen arm, and history tells us it shouldn't cost them too much. They picked up relievers Brandon Kintzler and Jesse Chavez last year for minor-leaguers. Two years ago, the traded Jeimer Candelario to the Detroit Tigers for lefty reliever Justin Wilson.

Teams out of the race on or before July 31 will be glad to move money off their books for, in many cases, midlevel prospects.

Advantage Maddon?

By rights, Maddon should have been given a contract extension during the middle of last season, but Epstein (who already is on his second contract with the Cubs) decided to let him dangle and said no extension would be possible until late this year.

Instead of terming himself a lame-duck manager, manager has preferred "free agent," and if the Cubs don't act to extend Maddon, he may have suitors this coming off-season.

Maddon loves to the New York newspapers, and if the Mets fire beleaguered manager Mickey Callaway, Maddon and the Mets could be a match made in Gotham heaven.

Memo to Epstein: Sign Maddon to an extension soon. He has a .588 winning percentage (434-304 record) as manager of the Cubs. Only Hall of Famers Albert Spalding and Frank Chance have better winning percentages as Cubs managers.

Rotation roulette

The Cubs have had three-fifths of their starting rotation on the injured list at points this season: ace Jon Lester in April, Kyle Hendricks from mid-June to early July and Cole Hamels currently.

As the Cubs' rotation goes, so goes the team. When the Cubs get a quality start, the team is 31-9 and the starters have an ERA of 1.49.

When the Cubs don't get a quality start, they are 16-34, with the starters' ERA at 6.97.

Hamels was the Cubs' best starter in the first half, and if he returns healthy and effective from a left-oblique strain, it will go a long way toward any success the Cubs have the rest of the way.

Yu Darvish starts the weekend opener against the Pirates. He is 2-4 with a 5.01 ERA and only 4 quality starts among his 18 total starts for the season. It's high time Darvish steps it up.

The offense:

The Cubs enter the unofficial second half ranked eighth in batting average, fifth in runs scored, third in on-base percentage, fourth in home runs and fourth in slugging.

They rank 24th in major-league baseball with a .249 batting average with runners in scoring position (the second-place Milwaukee Brewers rank 29th).

Hitting with runners in scoring position, both for teams and individuals, can be a random stat and can vary from year to year. Whether the Cubs being on their third hitting coach in three years has anything to do with this year's RISP numbers is anybody's guess.

As long as the Cubs keep the OBP and slugging numbers up and grind out at-bats, the production should follow.

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