GM Jed Hoyer breaks down the season so far and how 2017 Cubs need to create their own identity

GM Jed Hoyer breaks down the season so far and how 2017 Cubs need to create their own identity

The Cubs survived the season's first 15 games without the kind of devastating injury that sidelined Kyle Schwarber last year or the steroid suspension that just took down Starling Marte and might sink the Pittsburgh Pirates. There's value in just avoiding the catastrophic event, like the Toronto Blue Jays starting 2-11 and already sparking speculation about a sell-off. 

The Cubs don't have to worry about their window suddenly closing or wonder if buying would make sense at the trade deadline. There are no free agents in Year 1 of megadeals in the clubhouse, the way Jon Lester and Jason Heyward had to get acclimated to a new team and different expectations. The 108-year drought is finally over.

Maybe 8-7 isn't exactly what the Cubs expected when they left Arizona at the end of spring training. But they also headed out on a 10-day road trip that begins Friday night against the Cincinnati Reds feeling like they already weathered a storm. 

"One of the things about coming off a world championship," general manager Jed Hoyer, "is that I do think there's a tendency to feel like: ‘OK, we have the same group together, the same things are going to happen again.' 

"Every team has to create their own identity. Every team has to go through that process again. Maybe this is good for us, in a way. It forces our guys to realize that just bringing back a lot of the same guys on a really good team — it doesn't just happen overnight. 

"It takes time. It takes building that identity and working through some problems together."    

It's not that the Cubs needed a wake-up call. It's more the reality of a 162-game schedule, the emotions and distractions during that first banner-raising/ring-ceremony homestand at Wrigley Field and the target on their backs. Next weekend's showdown against the Boston Red Sox will be billed as a potential World Series preview, but the Cubs don't need national TV or a backdrop like Fenway Park to know they will be getting everyone's best shot.   

"Even in the games we've won, I don't think we've still been quite as clean or quite as efficient as we were a year ago," Hoyer said. "But one of the nice things about bringing back almost exactly the same team is we know we can do it. Virtually the same group won 103 games last year and obviously was very dominant at times. I think we'll get back to that."

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your Cubs seats right here]

The Cubs have committed 12 errors, while still being a top-seven team in the majors in terms of defensive efficiency. The rotation has made only six quality starts, but that group has an overall 3.60 ERA, even with Kyle Hendricks off to a slow start. The bullpen has blown four saves, but new closer Wade Davis is 2-0 with three saves and a 0.00 ERA.

The Cubs rank 13th in the National League with 13 homers — Bryzzo Souvenir Co. has produced three so far — and have scored more runs than only six other NL teams. But Schwarber (.814 OPS) is a force at the top of the lineup and Heyward is hitting .294 after breaking down and rebuilding his swing. 

"April's difficult — we're drawing big conclusions based on tiny sample sizes," Hoyer said. "That's just the nature of it. That said, I don't think we've played the kind of baseball we played last year, that's for sure. We've been sloppier, at times, than we were last year. We didn't do that last year. We were very clean. We took care of the ball. We didn't give other teams outs. 

"The offensive part — I have zero concerns about that. That's just a matter of time. We have such a talented lineup with guys with track records that actually even have upside beyond what they did last year. The offensive part will come around." 

Back-to-back comeback wins over the Milwaukee Brewers this week at Wrigley Field also gave the Cubs flashbacks to 2016. 

"It's not like we're playing poorly," manager Joe Maddon said. "When you don't hit, sometimes the definition is that you're not playing well. We're just not hitting up to our capabilities yet. The defense, overall, has been really good. The starting pitching, for the most part, has been really good. The bullpen, confidence-wise, (is getting there). 

"We will start to hit. That's going to happen. And then as these bullpen dudes get their confidence…just keep moving it forward. I like where we're at."

The Cubs avoided a last-minute signing this winter to bolster their bullpen, so they could conserve resources for the trade deadline. Prospects like Ian Happ then went out and made a strong impression in spring training, showing the farm system still has high-end talent. 

Happ generated six homers in his first 14 games at the Triple-A level and has already played second base and all three outfield spots for Iowa, with the idea that he might also work out at third base to boost his versatility and marketability. 

But it's too early to tell how the trade market will shake out, where the Cubs might see a match in a deal for pitching or if other unforeseen needs might arise between now and then.  

"We're a long way from that," Hoyer said. "The way the game is, I feel like April and May are sort of evaluation months. People don't try to make massive decisions before Memorial Day. And then once you get into June, trades and transactions become a lot more realistic. But we're still 45 games from that really becoming a reality."

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

To quote the great Ron Burgundy: That escalated quickly.

Don't look now, but the Cubs are just a game out of first place in the National League Central standings and could take over first place sometime this weekend.

While the Cubs have been on their post All-Star break tear, winners of all six of their games since the Midsummer Classic, the first-place Milwaukee Brewers have been on a simultaneous skid, losers of their last five games.

Because of all that, the standings have tightened dramatically. What was a five and a half game difference between the Cubs and Brewers at the break is now just a one-game gap.

It goes up and down the standings, too, as the Pittsburgh Pirates — who completed a four-game sweep of the Brewers on Thursday afternoon — are just three games back. The St. Louis Cardinals, who start a weekend series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Friday, are just four and a half games back of the Brewers.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Given how hot the Cubs are right now, a move into first place sometime in the next couple days wouldn't be surprising in the least.

The Cubs have scored a whopping 44 runs during their six-game win streak, an average of more than seven runs a game. That stretch has also seen 16 home runs off Cubs bats.

The Cardinals roll into Wrigley losers of back-to-back games and four of their last seven since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Brewers travel for a three-game weekend set against the Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the worst record in baseball, and the Pirates pay a visit to the Colorado Rockies, a 56-win team that scored 18 runs in a Wednesday win over the San Diego Padres.

If you were hoping for a fun race in the Central in the second half of the season, it seems your wish has come true. As for those fans waiting around for the Cubs to finally move into first place, where they haven't been since June 6, you might soon get your wish, too.

Cubs Talk Podcast: State of Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and what lies ahead

russellsierra.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: State of Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and what lies ahead

St. Louis Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold stops by to chat with CSN's Patrick Mooney about the landscape of the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and preview the weekend series at Wrigley Field on the latest Cubs Talk Podcast.

Later, Double-A Tennessee broadcaster Mick Gillespie joins the podcast to chat with Mooney about what prospects the Cubs have left in the farm system.

Also, how pitcher Dillon Maples could make an impact on the big league club as soon as this year.

Check out the entire podcast here: