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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    The Chicago Cubs are not off to the dominant start many expected.

    The World Series champions are 20-19 with a plus-eight run differential through their first 39 games, leaving them in third place in the NL Central.

    At the same point a year ago, they were far and away the best team in baseball, kicking off the season with a 28-11 record and a plus-106 run differential.

    We would obviously like to be playing better than we are right now,” starter Jake Arrieta said, per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. “I don’t think there’s any reason to panic. I think that the talent we have here will correct itself and start to turn itself around.”

    While there’s no single issue that can be pointed to as the reason for their less-than-stellar start, there are a handful of key players on the roster who are vastly underperforming.

    Ahead is a look at five players who need to step it up after slow starts.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2017: 123 PA, .228/.264/.430, 26 H, 12 XBH (5 HR), 14 RBI, 16 R

    2017 Advanced: 4.1% BB, 26.0% K, .269 BABIP, 21.2% Soft, 29.4% Hard

    Player Outlook

    A breakout postseason performance looked like it might be the jumping-off point to superstardom for Javier Baez.

    After posting a .737 OPS with 14 home runs en route to 3.4 WAR during the regular season, he hit .375 during the Division Series and followed that up by winning NLCS MVP honors on the strength of a .318 average, four doubles and five RBI.

    The 24-year-old hasn’t made much of an impact at the plate here in 2017, though.

    His strikeout rate has stayed about the same (24.0 to 26.0 percent) and he’s not making any less hard contact (29.1 to 29.4 percent), so there is no glaring peripheral issue.

    There’s also reason to expect some positive regression with a .269 batting average on balls in play that is well below the league average, especially for someone with his speed.

    It looked like things might finally be falling into place when he started off the month hot, including a four-hit game on May 2, but he’s gone ice cold again with a 3-for-26 showing in his last seven games.

    For what it’s worth, Baez doesn’t sound particularly worried.

    I usually start like this, not too hot,” he said, per Jesse Rogers of ESPN. “Through the season I get warm.”

    That’s simple enough.

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    2017: 154 PA, .220/.286/.362, 31 H, 12 XBH (3 HR), 17 RBI, 23 R

    2017 Advanced: 7.8% BB, 18.8% K, .257 BABIP, 17.0% Soft, 23.2% Hard

    Player Outlook

    Elite defense was Addison Russell’s calling card last season. His 19 DRS and 14.3 UZR/150 stacked up to any middle infielder in baseball and undoubtedly played a role in the team’s MLB-best 3.15 ERA.

    He was no slouch at the plate, either.

    Russell became just the sixth shortstop in MLB history to put together a 20-homer, 90-RBI performance prior to his age-23 season, and he spent a good part of the year hitting in the middle of the lineup.

    So what’s changed this season?

    His strikeout rate (22.6 to 18.8 percent) has actually improved, and he’s still walking at a solid clip, but he’s not making the same solid contact he did a year ago.

    His hard-contact rate has dipped from 29.3 to 23.2 percent, his .647 OPS represents a 91-point decline over last season, and he’s failed to deliver in the clutch with a .222 average with runners in scoring position.

    The 23-year-old has missed time of late with a sore shoulder and that may have contributed to his lack of pop in the early going.

    At any rate, as long as the dynamic defense (9 DRS, 3.6 UZR/150) remains, he’ll be given every opportunity to get things going at the plate.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2017: 180 PA, .221/.356/.403, 33 H, 13 XBH (7 HR), 22 RBI, 18 R

    2017 Advanced: 12.8% BB, 13.3% K, .220 BABIP, 21.6% Soft, 28.8% Hard

    Player Outlook

    For most players, a .758 OPS with seven home runs and 22 RBI at this point in the season would be perfectly respectable production.

    Anthony Rizzo isn’t most players, though. The leader of the young club on and off the field, he isn’t producing at his usual top-tier level thus far.

    He just looks slightly uncomfortable with the timing of the pitch right now,” manager Joe Maddon told Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago. “I just think he is going through one of those moments. I just believe his timing and rhythm is a click off. I am not overly concerned because I have seen him do this before, and get hot really quickly.”

    Bad luck has played a significant role, as his .220 BABIP ranks 174th among 187 qualified hitters and is well below his .286 career mark.

    Really, it seems like only a matter of time before he runs into a hot streak and is back to producing at his normal level.

    Still, it’s tough to ignore that .221 average on the scoreboard here in the middle of May.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2017: 170 PA, .188/.312/.361, 27 H, 13 XBH (6 HR), 17 RBI, 19 R

    2017 Advanced: 14.1% BB, 27.1% K, .228 BABIP, 20.4% Soft, 36.7% Hard

    Player Outlook

    Having batting slugger Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot has been perhaps the most polarizing decision made by manager Joe Maddon in his time with the Chicago Cubs.

    On the one hand, he has as much power as any player on the roster and certainly fits the profile of a middle-of-the-order run producer.

    However, his elite plate discipline makes him a good fit as a table-setter.

    His 14.5 percent walk rate ranks 20th among qualified players, and he’s giving his teammates plenty of chances to see what the opposing pitcher hashe ranks 11 in the majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.33).

    Be patient, Cubs fans.

    Schwarber has been as unlucky as any hitter in the league with a .228 BABIP that ranks 172nd among 187 qualified hitters and once that levels off, there’s no reason he can’t be among the league leaders in on-base percentage.

    General manager Theo Epstein made it clear to reporters recently that he’s still a staunch supporter:

    “He hasn’t gotten on track yet, but we have no doubts he will. If anyone wants to sell their Kyle Schwarber stock, we’re buying. If they want to sell low, we’ll buy low. He’s going to have tremendous production at the end of the year. He’s going to have a lot of big hits to help us win games. There are a lot of hits out there for the rest of the year.”

    As far as votes of confidence go, that’s about as clear as it gets.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2017: 4-3, 5.44 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9, 9.9 K/9, 44.2 IP

    2017 Advanced: 4.18 FIP, .355 BABIP, 40.2% GB, 60.9% LOB

    Player Outlook

    Jake Arrieta followed up an otherworldly second-half performance en route to 2015 Cy Young honors with an impressive first half last season, going 12-4 with a 2.68 ERA to earn a spot on the NL All-Star team.

    However, he looked considerably more human after the break, posting a 3.69 ERA with just seven quality starts in 13 appearances.

    After a pair of strong starts to kick off the 2017 campaign, his struggles have reached new levels to the tune of a 6.82 ERA over his last six starts.

    So what’s wrong?

    For starters, his fastball (94.3 to 92.5 mph) and slider (89.7 to 87.8 mph) velocity are both down and his hard-contract rate (25.2 to 31.8 percent) has climbed considerably. Simply put, he’s been more hittable.

    It’s some bad luck,” Arrieta said, per Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago. “Right now, it seems like the mistakes I’m making, they’re not fouling them off or taking or swinging and missing. They’re making pretty solid contact. I’m going to continue to be aggressive.”

    Faith in the right-hander hasn’t waned, though.

    I have so much faith and confidence in him and his methods,” manager Joe Maddon told Mooney. “You’re pretty aware that I don’t get kind of off the bandwagon very easily. I really believe he’s going to be fine. I believe it’s just going to be almost like a snap of the fingerseverything’s going to fall back into place.”

    He added: “I don’t think you’re going to see this slow method of better, better, better, better, great. I just think you’re all of a sudden going to see something’s going to click and he’s going to be back close to where he had been.”

    Arrieta is pitching for a big contract in free agency next offseason, so he’ll be plenty motivated to right the ship.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

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