Lovable Winners: How the Chicago Cubs went from a punchline to contenders.

by

It’s finally almost next year for Cubs fans.

 

I’m friends with a lot of Cubs fans. Not just one or two scattered throughout my life, but a significant chunk of my social circle. While they come from different backgrounds, they all always had one thing in common: they seemed to enjoy the pain and suffering brought on by their favorite team. This isn’t a secret or some type of revelation, the team is even known as the “Lovable Losers”. However, something strange is happening to the North Siders this year; their team is winning, often in dramatic fashion, and they’re actually enjoying it.
Few teams were worse than the Cubs the last 5 years, and that was just fine with team owners. After years of caring more about attendance than winning, new ownership finally seemed fed up with being a punch line and took drastic action.  For a large chunk of the 2000’s, the Cubs were a fringe contender, powered by fading stars and high-priced veterans. When a player would slip, the solution was throwing cash at a free agent or prospects at a trade to temporarily patch things over. This produced some quality teams (playoff appearances in 2007 and 2008),  but acquiring the established players for those brief playoff runs (swept in the first round both years), left the minor league cupboard bare. While trading top prospects for above-average players is a flawed business model, a lot of teams continue to do it, since it’s easier to sell to fans than a total rebuild.

I’ll rip Cubs ownership for a lot of things, but the decision to do a complete teardown and rebuild was one that took both intelligence and some guts to make. They had already begun the rebuild by the time they signed former Red Sox wunderkind Theo Epstein in 2011 (for a cool 20 million dollars) as President of Baseball Operations, but there was still quite a bit of work to do and pain to go through along the way. The Cubbies went from 97 wins in 2008 down to rock bottom from 2012-2014 when they won 61, 66, and 73 games respectively, while trotting out some of the worst looking lineups in recent memory. All this losing and dumping of talent did come with a silver lining in the form of high draft picks and more available cash to spend on foreign prospects. This reallocation of assets landed them top 10 picks Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez and Albert Almora, all of whom will either contribute to the big league lineup or be dealt for more organizational depth. Theo’s style of asset collection yields a lot of duplication of player types (lots of middle infielders and corner outfielders), but it essentially increases the odds of successful player development. The more lottery tickets you buy, the higher the probability is that you hit it big.

The biggest impact made by Theo has been his exploitation of the international signing rules. The rules are ridiculously complicated, but each MLB team is alloted a certain amount of salary that can be offered to international prospects in a signing year. If teams go over their alloted amount, they pay a penalty to the league and are restricted in their future transactions. The smart teams have found that the rules can be exploited: clubs will willingly go over their allotment, triggering a “sit out year” and a penalty, if it means throwing cash at the top international talent. The Cubs blew past their allotment in 2013, prohibiting them from signing any player for over 250k in 2014, but they are happily repeating their process this year, and if it nets them another Jorge Soler, they’ll pay the penalty every time.

All of the organizational depth, reloading and rebuilding doesn’t mean anything to players, ownership or fans if there’s never any payoff, and that has been the fear for the Cubs. Would they ever pull the trigger on calling up the young guys, or would it just be a repetitive cycle of rebuilding?  Sensing that the National League Central and the N.L. Wild Card spots were extremely winnable, Epstein and friends pulled the trigger with the offseason signing of potential ace, Jon Lester and the early season call ups of future stars Addison Russell and Kris Bryant. Despite his early struggles, Lester is the anchor of the staff they thought they were getting, and Bryant, Soler and Russell have been as good as advertised. After a season in which they went 3-74 in games where they trailed after 7 innings, and 0-79 when trailing after the 8th, the Cubs have been the Cardiac Kids this year, with 11 games decided by 1 run and multiple comeback victories. History has taught us that success in 1 run games is largely a function of good luck, but when you’re working with young players, confidence plays a huge part in development so they’ll take any boost they can get.
With all that being said, the Cubs are still (likely) a player or 2 and a year away from true contention. Bryant, Soler and Russell still have quite a bit of developing to do, and while Anthony Rizzo has perfected the post game celebration, he still needs to develop as a leader. But, even with the inevitable failure of most top prospects, there’s a ton of help waiting  in the minors and Theo has shown little hesitation when it comes to making bold moves. They certainly won’t mortgage the future for a shot this year, but if the price is right, they won’t hesitate to add bullpen depth or another starting pitcher to this year’s squad.
I grew up hating the Cubs, and I can’t overcome that to completely root for them, but I also appreciate the dedication their fans have and the pain they go through. Generation after generation of people are born, live and die without seeing their team win the big one. I have to admit that I would be pretty happy to see it happen. And while it may not be this year, the future is bright and the present is pretty good too. Cubs fans can finally have something they can be proud of beyond Wrigley Field and Old Style.

For a season with 162 games, the MLB season somehow always sneaks past me. I look forward to Spring Training and Opening Day and the next thing I know, it’s the middle of July and I’m researching for the NFL season. One thing that helps me to really enjoy the season is to periodically take stock of how the year is progressing.

Things I liked:
Houston Astros resurgence: Once a power in the National League Central, the Astros management made the decision in 2010 that year after year of mediocrity wasn’t for them. Over the next 4 years, they sold off everything that wasn’t nailed down. This led to some awful baseball. Things got so bad that one of the local TV broadcasts actually drew a “0” rating in 2013. It isn’t all bad, by purging their roster of anything of value, it cleared the way for players like Jose Altuve, Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel to get big playing time and moved the minor league system from 30th in 2009 to 3rd in 2014. Altuve is off to another hot start (.339 batting average, 3 home runs, 19 RBI), Keuchel and McHugh have been the best top-2 of any pitching staff in the bigs (9-0 combined with an average 2.10 Earned Run Average) , and while the early season success is partially a function of historic level good luck, there’s definitely reason to believe that after 416 losses in the last 4 seasons, the Astros may actually be turning the corner. I don’t care if they don’t win another game this season, I’ll be rooting for them as long as their players keep giving me things like this.

We are all witnesses.

Bartolo Colon keeps chugging along: This could be a commentary on the New York Mets in general. Everyone picked the Nationals to run away with the division, and that may still happen, but the Mets have been the class of the division so far. The biggest part of this has been the dominance of their starting pitching and a big part of that has been the continued steadiness of Bartolo Colon. Maybe it’s time for me to stop being surprised by the hefty Mets hurler, but then again, maybe being surprised is half the fun. Considered washed up in 2007 and completely out of baseball in 2010, Bartolo resurfaced as an injury replacement in the Yankees rotation in 2011 and after spending his prime as a strikeout machine, gutted and finessed his way to 56 wins over the last 4 plus seasons. I despised Colon ever since he crapped the bed during his White Sox season before winning 39 games and a Cy Young in Anaheim, but I can’t help but root for a guy with no visible athletic ability who appears to sustain himself solely on fried foods and beer yet still performs at an elite level.

New York Yankees- underdogs??: It’s weird to say this about a team that I (and most MLB fans) grew up hating and has the highest payroll in the league, but I’ve enjoyed the success of the underdog Yankees this year. Despite getting nothing from big ticket purchases Carlos Beltran and CC Sabathia, the Bronx Bombers have risen to the top of a mediocre American League East thanks in large part to the league’s 4th best bullpen which is composed of one high-priced acquisition in Andrew Miller and a group of youngsters and cast-off picked off the league scrap heap. (Jonah Keri did an exhaustive breakdown on Grantland) The offense which ranked in the bottom half of the league last year has jumped up to 4th in the A.L. in runs scored, fueled by a monster start for Jacoby Ellsbury (.355 average, 21 runs, 11 stolen bases), a surprising resurgence of sorts for Mark Teixiera (10 home runs, 23 runs batted in) and the usual all around solid play of Brett Gardner (8 stolen bases, 5 doubles and a .309 average) While I won’t ever really let go of my hatred for the pinstripes, I have to admit that the league is a whole lot more fun when the bad guys are good.

Miami Marlins Celebrations: When we first started seeing the shaving cream pie to the face routine during postgame interviews, it was a lot fun to watch. It starts with an unsuspecting player, fresh off a big performance, being interviewed on live TV with no idea what was about to happen to him. While he’s distracted by the interviewer, a teammate sneaks behind him, and bang!! pie to the face. Everyone has a laugh, the guy gets a little embarrassed and we move on. Unfortunately, there were negatives as well. Players ended up with shaving cream in their eyes, facial bruising and even torn ligaments from celebrations gone awry. Insert Miami Marlins speedster, Dee Gordon. During teammate Christian Yelich’s post game interview, Gordon had a teammate come in behind him with a Nerf basketball goal and proceeded to posterize Yelich with a Blake Griffin style jam.  I am all for ingenuity and creativity with celebrations, and I also love Giancarlo Stanton’s proclamation that he doesn’t want to be dunked on anymore.  There’s no proof that liking your teammates or having goofy celebrations helps things, but I’d like to think that a happier team equals a better team.

Things I Didn’t Like:

This is how Robin feels after every awful White Sox at-bat.

Chicago White Sox plate discipline (or lack thereof): There was a ton of optimism for Sox fans after a blockbuster offseason, but between a Chris Sale injury, stupid baseball fights and plain old bad baseball, 2015 has not been a pleasant experience for the South Siders. There’s plenty of blame to go around, as nobody outside of Jose Abreu has been any good, but the biggest disappointment has been the lack of intelligent baseball strategy. Thanks to the modern analytics movement in baseball, we can see that there’s a general correlation between the number of pitches batters see and the overall success of a lineup. When a team sees more pitches they get a better idea of how to attack a pitcher, and more importantly, they tire the starting pitcher out and get into a team’s bullpen. While the best teams generally have good bullpens, even the best relievers are only relievers because they weren’t good enough to be starters. This year, the White Sox have been horribly impatient, with only 1 player from their lineup ranking in the top 40 in Pitches per At-Bat and consequently rank 29th in the league in runs scored. The starting pitching could easily improve if Samardzija and Sale revert to prior seasons form and there’s reason to believe the defense will get better, but if the Sox don’t start playing smarter, Robin Ventura won’t be around for 2016.

Glut of major injuries: It’s been well documented that  Tommy John surgeries are ripping through baseball at a faster pace than ever before. Twenty-five percent of active MLB pitchers have had the procedure, which reconstructs a pitcher’s torn ulnar collateral ligament, as have 15 percent of current minor league pitchers. Last season was particularly awful:  More pitchers had the surgery in 2014 than in the entirety of the 1990’s. Just this month, we lost Yu Darvish, Homer Bailey, Alex Cobb and Masuhiro Tanaka. That’s a combined 54 million in salary and 44 wins worth of pitcher lost for the season. At least Tanaka, Bailey and Darvish have already gotten paid, poor Alex Cobb is arbitration eligible after this season and will have a much harder time demanding a big payday. We also lost perennial Cy Young contender Adam Wainwright to a torn achilles, Max Scherzer has missed time with a thumb injury and Yasiel Puig has a messed up hamstring. When you throw in the usual array of 15-day DL type injuries, it’s been a pretty depressing start to the season for a lot of fans. We often marvel at the size, strength and speed of modern athletes, but with that increased speed and power comes increased strain. Hopefully this is just a blip on the radar and we can go back to watching guys crush homers and throw darts for the rest of the year.

Baseball fights: I hate fighting in sports. Whether it’s the semi-planned hockey goons slugging each other or the idiotic NFL players punching each other in the helmets; I hate it. What I hate even more is the caveman style glorification and justification of the fight after the fact. During a recent White Sox/Royals series, multiple Royals and Sox batters were hit (semi-intentionally) by pitches. This led to a sequence where Sox outfielder Adam Eaton hit a chopper to Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura and both players mothed off at one another. At that point, all hell broke loose.  It was bad enough that multiple players got booted from the game, but it came out after the fact that Sox ace, Chris Sale, attempted to get into the Royals clubhouse to “continue the conversation” with Ventura. Since then, Sale, Samardzija, Volquez and Ventura were all suspended. So to recap: because guys couldn’t control their temper, both teams will be without their top 2 starters for one turn in the rotation. For all the talk about how each playoff race could come down to 1 game, it seems awfully stupid and shortsighted to get yourself suspended over a perceived injustice, whether it was intentional or not. (Author’s note- this is not the only incident the Royals have been involved with- they seem to be going out of their way to make everyone in baseball hate them: An odd play for last year’s lovable underdog.)

Since I hate to leave on a negative note, I want to share a story from this last week:
My fiance and I were watching the Blackhawks/Wild game, and even though it was a close game and I love the ‘Hawks, I was channel surfing during the 2nd period. During one of my forays into the channel guide, I noticed that “Field of Dreams” was playing on the MLB Network. There was about 40 minutes left in the movie and I mentioned that it was one of my favorites, particularly the ending. Steph remarked that she had never seen it, and was unfamiliar with the story. I quickly went from channel surfing and bored to determined. For the next 40 minutes, I maneuvered back and forth between the game and the movie, filling in plot points where I could until it was time for the closing 10 minutes of the movie. Despite her insistence that the game would be back on, I kept the movie on while insisting “it’s worth it, trust me.” When Shoeless Joe was leaving the field, and Kevin Costner realized his father was the only player left, it got awfully dusty in our apartment. And when Costner asked his dad “Wanna have a catch?”, it was all over for us. In one scene, I was transported back to my childhood- playing catch with my dad, sorting my baseball cards and pretending I was Frank Thomas and hitting the walk-off grand slam to win the World Series. No matter how cynical I may get, or how overly obsessed with stats I can be, it all comes back to that childhood love of the game. At the end of the day, I just wanna have a catch with my dad, eat a hot dog and enjoy the game.

 

 

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