Although the Cubs are behind the 8-ball having already lost every game they’ve played this season, some folks can look at their situation and still find seeds of optimism.
To be sure, my dispassionate take on the Cubs’ likeliest outcome this year has them somewhere in the 70-win range, tops, with an expected summer sell-off accelerating the losing in the second half. I’ll hedge by noting that I do like the composition of the roster, particularly the versatility and flexibility, and I do see many players who could surprise to the upside (and if enough of them do it at once, great things can happen). All, in all, though, I don’t see .500 in the Cubs’ future this year.
But FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron can see it. In his recent piece on five things he believes about the 2014 season (must read, naturally), here’s what he says in part about the Cubs, whom he believes might be better than folks think:
I think this team might be surprisingly not awful, in part because I think the players who are taking the field on Opening Day might not be regulars for a terribly long period of time. Javier Baez looks to be on the verge of a Major League call-up, and if he hits in Triple-A like he did in Double-A last year, the Cubs won’t keep him down for too long. And depending on how the infield shakes out, he might not come alone. Arismendy Alcantara and Kris Bryant also aren’t that far off, and depending on how aggressive the Cubs want to be with second half promotions, Jorge Soler could see Chicago towards the end of the year as well.
Toss in the addition of an arm like C.J. Edwards on the pitching side, and the Cubs have a wave of pretty great prospects that could finish the year in Wrigley Field. It’s unrealistic to expect all of them to contribute this year, but with this kind of talent, the odds are good that one or two of them prove to be ready faster than expected, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Baez, Bryant, and Edwards ended up being pretty solid Major League players as soon as they hit the field. I’m not expecting any of them to pull a Yasiel Puig, but given early enough call-ups, I could see some combination of prospects adding three to five wins to the Cubs total this year, and I don’t think a .500 season is completely out of the question.
That’s an interesting perspective, and you certainly can’t rule it out. If Baez continues his tear and is up in June, that alone could add a couple wins on the year. I tend to think, though, that if the Cubs do surprise and approach .500, it’s going to have more to do with guys like Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Mike Olt, Junior Lake, Welington Castillo, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and the like surprising to the upside. That’s a boatload of potential impact – probably more than Baez/Bryant/Alcantara/Edwards could effect in a half-season, even if they all came up in June/July (which they won’t).
None of that is to poo-poo Cameron’s point, which is a good one: when we project a team’s season, it’s so easy to ignore surprising prospect promotions and impact, which does seem to happen every year. Are there many teams better positioned than the Cubs in that regard? Probably not too many.
Which brings me to the follow-up point that Cameron’s comments brought to mind: are we actually hoping the Cubs go .500 this year?
If you’ve been around for the duration of The Plan, you’re not unfamiliar with this discussion. And frankly, even after having it so many times, I’m still not sure where I land. Since it is unreasonable to hope for the playoffs this year (not impossible, but so unlikely that you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if that’s where you put your eggs), should we be hoping for the best possible non-playoff record the Cubs can record?
The downsides to winning, say, 81 games, rather than 69, are pretty obvious: a lower draft pick, less draft pool money, less international pool money, and maybe an unprotected first round draft pick next year (probably right in the range where it’s particularly painful to lose a first rounder, too).
But there are upsides to going .500, especially if your team has been well under .500 for a half decade. There are attendance and revenue increases (particularly notable when on the verge of a new TV contract). There are possible intangible benefits when trying to convince free agents to sign on.
And there’s the big one: for this Cubs team to actually go .500, that means a bunch of individual stories were great this year. A bunch of guys developed. A bunch of guys produced. A bunch of guys look really good going into 2015. Sure, that’s all kind of backwards-looking – which is to say, you’re not really rooting for .500, you’re just rooting for that good stuff to happen (which then results in .500) – but it’s probably the most important part of this discussion.
In the abstract, would I rather the Cubs lost the most games in baseball if they aren’t going to make the playoffs? Maybe. But if that actually happens, things could look really ugly heading into the offseason. I’d rather have a whole bunch of things go right for the Cubs – things that make the near-term future picture look bright – and have them “suffer” the consequences of a .500 record.
At least I think. As I said, this is something of an ongoing internal debate …