Why June is make-or-break month for Cubs' season, core


Backs and hamstrings. A couple of wrists. Ribs and a forearm from an outfield collision. And now another Cub goes on the injured list because of an appendectomy?

“You want to cry uncle sometimes,” Cubs manager David Ross said Monday morning during a sometimes terse media session spent entirely on injury updates and uncertain timelines.

But it could be worse for the Cubs.

In fact, it’s about to be — or at least a lot more challenging.

Because as well as the Cubs have rebounded from a rough April during this 18-8 May, they’re on the eve of a month that has rarely looked so daunting and that has never been so critical to every decision made and direction taken the rest of the season.

A month that has never been so critical to the futures in Chicago of core All-Stars Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and a handful of other Cubs in walk years.

The front office acknowledges that much even while marveling at the May performance that not only included those 18 wins but that until Sunday did not include a loss by more than a one-run margin.

Cubs president Jed Hoyer said he expects to have the resources to add veteran help at the July 30 deadline.

But whether he’ll consider it worth buying — never mind how aggressively — by then depends almost entirely on how they navigate a June gauntlet that opens with a three-series stretch against the top three teams in the National League so far: the Padres (twice) and Giants.

Two of those series represent a seven-game road trip that starts Thursday — one of two West Coast trips during the month, with a trip to New York to face the NL East-leading Mets in between.

“It’s a real challenge for any team,” Hoyer said. “It’s a real challenge for us.”

Add a three-game series at the end of the month in Milwaukee against a team that throttled the Cubs in April among 18 road games during the month, and sprinkle in a home series against Cleveland pitching that shut them down and another series against the tough Cardinals, and it’s not difficult to see how tightly the Cubs might be clutching their available cash, if not their pearls, as they look at June for direction.

“I think we’ll learn a lot about this team over the month of June because to go out there and have success [against that schedule], that’s certainly a mark for a team that has a chance to compete in the postseason,” Hoyer said during a recent conversation in Pittsburgh, “because I think that’s the kind of environment you’re going to have to play in during the postseason.

“You’re going to have to go to the West Coast, given right now at least that those three teams in the NL West certainly have been the cream of the National League so far.”

And while the Cubs have impressed Hoyer and others up and down the chain of command for a May that included a three-game sweep of the NL-favorite Dodgers and Los Angeles’ top starting pitchers, the Dodgers also are playing at close to the top of their game again after a slump that coincided with their trip to Chicago. And they have 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger back from the IL.

The Cubs are optimistic they’ll get some of their own injured players back soon from the IL, including Rizzo (back), Jason Heyward (hamstring) and Jake Marisnick (hamstring).

Meanwhile, they’ll open the month haunted by the flesh-and-blood ghost of the pitcher they could use most, the kind who may not be available in any form at the trade deadline no matter how much they have to spend and who they sent to San Diego in a controversial trade in January only because of ownership-mandate cost-cutting.

Nice to see you at Wrigley Field again, Yu Darvish, even if you and your 2.16 ERA and that 10-1 record in your starts will stay on the Padres bench for this week’s three-game series.

“He’s just a guy that quite frankly is pitching as well as anybody in the league,” Padres manager Jayce Tinlger said before Monday’s game. “[His value to the Padres] is really tough to quantify. I just know we believe he’s — if not the top — one of the top guys in the league.”

Sure, rub it in.

Darvish is scheduled to face the Cubs next week in San Diego.

He’s also the standard for what the Cubs likely will seek at the deadline if they can navigate June impressively enough to inspire Hoyer and his staff to buy in July.

If enough quality starting pitching is even available by then. Coming off the pandemic-shortened 2020, pitching has never been more precious — and potentially more expensive at a trade deadline for a serious buyer.

“That’s a good question. I think that’s a real question,” Hoyer said. “And there’s a price you can pay and a price you can’t.”

He wouldn’t get into what that might mean for market strategy — whether trying to jump a market or wait out more sellers. Never mind any thoughts on Darvish and what might have been if they’d kept him.

For now, it’s about getting through what’s next.

And that’s a month of June that might be more important for the direction of this team than any June Hoyer has seen as a member of this front office.

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