The 2013 Chicago Cubs are 15-22. They’ve probably played just a touch better than that, but, as GM Jed Hoyer recently said (paraphrasing Denny Green?), the Cubs are what their record says they are.
Having just taken two out of three from the Washington Nationals, however – games stared by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez – is there a reason to hope that the turnaround is happening now? Cubs players and manager Dale Sveum are all pretty excited about that series win in Washington. And the Cubs do stand to benefit from the imminent return of Matt Garza, and the recent return of Kyuji Fujikawa.
Is this a team that can avoid a sell-off in July, let alone be competitive come September?
I don’t want to be the bucket of cold water, because it was a great series to win, but I think we need to step back and recalibrate. A series is a series, and any team can beat any team in a series. We’re taking about three games: a blowout on either side, and then a coin flip game in which the Cubs’ bats did nothing. I enjoyed the wins as much as anyone, but I think we should be very cautious about putting too much stock in one series win, especially one that easily could have gone the other way.
This is a 15-22 team that has a long, long way to go if it wants to surprise to the upside. To get to 85 wins and have a teeny, tiny playoff hope, the Cubs have to go 70-55 over their remaining 125 games. Possible? Absolutely. Likely? Not really, even with a healthy roster. And, if last year was any guide, it’s going to take more than 85 wins to actually make the playoffs (the Cardinals had the fewest wins of the playoff entrants, and they won 88). Baseball Prospectus currently has the Cubs’ playoff odds at just 6.4% right now.
It’s important to keep perspective on just how early it is, and how close the Cubs have been to “good.” How many games have the Cubs lost this year that, with one better bounce or one better pitch, they would have won? With just four losses flipped to wins, we’re sitting here talking about a 19-18 team, on pace to win 83 games. It’s amazing when you think about it that way.
… but we aren’t talking about that team. We’re talking about a 15-22 team, on pace to win just 66 games. It’s a team that can’t hit with runners on base, is shaky in the bullpen, struggles defensively at times, and doesn’t seem to have enough offense to generate wins on the backs of the one bright spot (the rotation). Worst of all, you can’t get those near-losses back. Sure, the team’s performance can stabilize, and “luck” can regress back to the positive side for the Cubs, but those 22 losses are here to stay. There is time to overcome it, but it’s difficult when you don’t have an overwhelmingly strong roster in the first place.
Hoping for a surprise turnaround, by the way, requires not only that the “bad” and “bad luck” things turn around (the RISP woes, the Hairston ineffectiveness, the bullpen troubles, the Soriano slow start, the Castro slump, Barney’s awful start, etc.), but also that the “good” and “good luck” things will continue. What happens if Scott Feldman, Travis Wood, and Carlos Villanueva stop pitching out of their minds? What happens when Kevin Gregg finally gives up a run, or, God forbid, blows a save? What happens if Nate Schierholtz and Luis Valbuena turn into pumpkins?
I’m afraid of what could happen.
I was very pleased to hear Theo Epstein echo my greatest fear for the 2013 Cubs in the offseason: the middle ground. In the Spring, Epstein told David Haugh that “It’d be nice to make the playoffs or get a protected draft pick [awarded the bottom nine teams]. We’re not hiding that. There’s no glory in 78 wins instead of 73. Who cares? We’re going to see where we are and take a real cold assessment in the middle of the season. If we have a legitimate chance to push for a playoff spot then 2013 can become our primary focus. If we think a playoff spot’s not in the cards, there will be no concern for appearances or cosmetics whatsoever.” In other words, if Epstein doesn’t see a playoff contender in July, he’s tearing the thing apart.
That’s my primary comfort as I look ahead to the coming months. Obviously my greatest hope is that the Cubs go on a shocking tear, winning a bunch of games in a row, and find themselves a handful of games over .500 come early July. If that happens, keep this baby together and see what you can do in the second half.
To be candid, my second-place hope is that, if the Cubs aren’t going to contend, they just suck. As Epstein said, there’s no glory in winning a few more games if you’re going to be terrible anyway, so lose ‘em all. As I wrote last year, there’s upside in being awful, so if you’re going to go bad, go all out. There are financial considerations here (attendance, for example) that have to be weighed, of course. But, from a pure baseball perspective, if you’re going to lose 90 anyway, you might as well lose 100.
What I do not want to see is a bunch of .500 play from here through mid-July, making the Cubs’ trade season decisions brutally difficult. If they tread water through the end of the year, but don’t even come close to the playoffs, then they’ll have accomplished nothing except failing to accumulate young assets at the Trade Deadline, and receiving a worse draft pick (and international bonus pool) in 2014.
Does that make me a bad fan? Should I not be admitting this? I feel pretty safe in saying this, since I’m essentially just agreeing with Epstein.
Regardless of how you feel about that middle ground, let’s all just agree on this: go ahead and win 20 in a row, Cubs, and we won’t have to worry about the cognitive dissonance that comes with loving the Cubs and simultaneously hoping they’re sufficiently terrible to ensure a sell-off.
If you’re hoping that the Cubs can avoid a sell-off at the Trade Deadline, here’s the number to keep in mind: .571.
That’s the winning percentage the Cubs need to put up between now and July 14 (the All-Star) to get back to .500 by that date, and theoretically avoid another purge. Even then, I’m not so sure the front office wouldn’t pull the plug if they didn’t think the playoffs were a realistic possibility, and feared that not selling off would hurt the rebuilding plan.