Every cloud has a silver lining, as the saying goes. As of May 11th, the Cubs, who just got swept by the Atlanta Braves, are 12-24, and have the worst record in the National League, and the second worst record in the Major Leagues. They are 2-7 in 1-run games and 3-13 in games decided by 2 runs or less, as reported by mlb.com Cubs columnist Carrie Muskat. The Cubs appear to be well on their way to another 100-loss season. It's very dark, very cloudy.
And yet, there is reason for optimism, as well as reason for concern over how the start of the 2014 season will affect the long-term plan of the Cubs' front office.
The Silver Lining, part 1: the Bounce-Backers
Here are a few of the good things:
-SS Starlin Castro and 1B Anthony Rizzo
The Cubs' two young stars had awful years in 2013, and needed to bounce back in a big way. They have.
Castro, who hit a miserable .245 with a paltry .631 OPS in 2013 has had a great 2014 so far, hitting .282/.773 with 5 HR (he hit 10 all last year). He has also made some beautiful plays in the field, and appears to have a much more focused approach to the game this season, which was one of the criticisms of Castro last year. His walk to strikeout ratio is also much better, indicating that he may be learning a more patient approach at the plate. This may be due to Rick Renteria and his coaching staff's approach with him. Castro is only 24, so he is a key piece to the Cubs' future, and he needed to prove again that he could be a cornerstone of the franchise. So far, so good.
Rizzo, also 24, has had an even better bounce back so far. After a promising 2012, in which Rizzo hit 15 HR in only half a season at age 22, he took a major step backward in 2013, batting only .233, with 24 HR and a .742 OPS, striking out 127 times. This led to speculation as to whether Rizzo was a legitimate piece in the future plan or a bust. He has come up huge so far in 2014, hitting .288, with 7 HR and an .886 OPS. He has 24 walks to go with 25 strikeouts, an almost 1:1 ratio, compared to the 1:2 walk/strikeout ratio he has managed in his career before this season-another example of a young player learning a more discerning approach at the plate. He has also showed signs of emerging as a team leader. This is a great sign for the future.
-SP Jeff Samardzija
Samardzija also had a career-worst year in 2013 (8-13, 4.34 ERA, 25 HR allowed) , and has emerged in 2014 as a legitimate major league ace. He is 0-3, due to run support that is bad to a historic degree, but he has been outstanding in all 8 of his starts, posting a 1.45 ERA, second best in the NL. Samardzija is 29, and has one year remaining on his contract after this season. If he were 2-3 years younger, the Cubs would probably be offering him the moon to lock him up long-term, as they did to 25 year-old free agent Masahiro Tanaka in the off-season. But, with the Cubs' potent farm system not expected to deliver major league-ready prospects until 2016 or 2017, Samardzija's true value to the Cubs' long-term future may be in the motherlode of top prospects the Cubs could receive for him at the trade deadline. As sad as it would be for the Cubs to miss out on the best years of Samardzija's career, it may be what's best for the team. When the Texas Rangers traded Mark Teixeira in his prime, they received a package of prospects that included key pieces to their back-to-back World Series' run: Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Neftali Feliz. Samardzija would garner a similar haul for the Cubs in late July, if he continues to pitch this well and stay healthy. The Cubs need pitching prospects-the top end of their farm system is heavy on position players, and a trade for their young ace could result in 2-3 great young arms. Watch out for the Colorado Rockies, who have 2 top-25 pitching prospects in Jon Gray and Eddie Butler. If they stay in contention by the deadline, they may be a prime trade partner.
You can bet that Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer hoped for all three of these players to start out 2014 exactly the way that they have. For the Cubs to contend in 2-3 years, all of these players, for different reasons, needed to perform well, and so far they have met and even exceeded expectations.
Coming next: The Silver Lining, part two: Junk Heap Heroes
Good things come to those who wait. It's become a cliche, and sometimes it isn't true, but generally, patience is rewarded, when your trust is well-placed. For Cub fans who have been waiting literally all their lives, patience is a necessary and loathesome burden, but it always seems to remain, as long as there is a shred of hope. The 60's Cubs had Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, the 70's gave us Bobby Murcer adn Dave Kingman, who hit mammoth home runs and struck out every other at bat. The 80's gave us Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux and near misses in 1984 and 1989. The '90's gave us Andre Dawson and a heavy dose of mediocrity, and the 2000's gave us Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Steve Bartman (ok, that should have been Alex Gonzalez). So here we are in the 2010's, and we have...a whole lot of losses and not much more. No superstars, no prospects that are clearly major-league ready. So, unlike in past eras where there was at least a shred of hope, the cupboard has been essentially bare since the Ricketts family took ownership of the Cubs, in late 2009.
But it had to be. When Theo Epstein left the Boston Red Sox after the 2011 season to join the Cubs, he began the process of dismantling a mess. No more big money aging free agents, no more hanging on to an above average veteran core while the minor league system was devoid of prospects. In short, the Ricketts' and Theo took the crutches of hope away from Cub fans. And I, for one, am glad they did.
They needed to get bad...really bad, in order to build a team that would be a contender for a decade, not just a random year here and there. It has been 105 years since the Cubs won a World Series. The "shred of hope" approach has not worked. This is how you build a championship team. You build a strong foundation through the draft and stocking your minor league system by trading major league assets that don't fit in your long-term plans for prospects from other teams. Then when a few of those prospects become fixtures on the big league club, you add pieces through free agency. The Pirates have done it, the Rangers have done it, the Rays have done it. The Cardinals have done it for decades. It is the right way to get to and win a World Series. But it takes time, and the bad years can be really, really bad.
I am a believer in Theo Epstein's approach. It broke the Red Sox' "curse" and I believe it will lead ultimately to the Cubs' first World Series victory in over a century. Who knows whether or not Starlin Castro, Jeff Samardzija or Anthony Rizzo will be there when it happens. But, more than likely, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Albert Almora will. The hope is there, it's just a little farther away than we're used to.