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Next month should show whether Cubs are playoff-ready

Chicago Tribune logoChicago Tribune 6/30/2015 Mark Gonzales
Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs hits a two-run home run against the New York Mets on May 11, 2015, in Chicago. © Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs hits a two-run home run against the New York Mets on May 11, 2015, in Chicago.

There were no warning signs, just a realistic assessment in March when manager Joe Maddon correctly forecasted the Cubs would experience a five-game losing streak during the 2015 season.

The unknown is the next 4 1/2 weeks, which could dictate how quickly the Cubs push toward a playoff berth this season by mortgaging some of their future.

For all the scrutiny on the recent struggles of prized rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, there are many others to blame for the lack of production with runners in scoring position.

The Cubs added veterans Miguel Montero, David Ross and Chris Denorfia in part to help the youngsters navigate the rigors of a long season. But Anthony Rizzo can't carry the offense alone.

Although there are 88 games left in the season, improvements need to occur much sooner. Maddon's preference to give Bryant and Russell a break soon might not be afforded until the four-day All-Star break, especially since the Cubs are carrying only four reserve players and power hitter Jorge Soler isn't expected to return until late this week.

Bryant had a 14-game hitting streak this month, and the expectation is he'll rebound. After the Cubs' fifth consecutive loss Sunday, Russell addressed how to remedy his weakness β€” stop chasing pitches out of the strike zone.

They'll get tested again next week in a four-game series when they face the same Cardinals team that swept them last weekend, and John Lackey, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez β€” who combined to help limit the Cubs to four runs β€” are lined up to pitch in the series.

Maddon prefers not to look that far ahead, and it's understandable with the Cubs trailing the Cardinals by 11 1/2 games. Early in the season, Maddon spoke of blending solid pitching, defense and offense that would lead to improvements over the .500 mark in five-game increments.

The Texas Rangers celebrate their win over the Los Angeles Angels at Globe Life Park in Arlington. The Texas Rangers defeated the Angels 9-2 and clinch the American League West division. 2015 MLB season

The implication was if the Cubs played well, they would strengthen their playoff chances regardless of how well the Cardinals were performing. But the rotation needs addressing, especially the back end.

The Cubs have done business in the past with the A's (with left-hander Scott Kazmir available), and general manager Jed Hoyer said last month at some point the Cubs would make a trade with the hitting-thirsty Mets.

This week provides the Cubs with a chance to personally scout potential trade targets, as they face left-hander Jonathon Niese of the Mets on Tuesday night and play host to the Marlins (with Tom Koehler and perhaps Dan Haren) this week.

The Cubs have several front-office members who are familiar with the Marlins' personnel dating back to their days with that organization, and President Theo Epstein hasn't been afraid to take a chance on a player with Red Sox ties.

Nevertheless, the performances of several Cubs in the next few weeks will determine how acute their needs are.

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