If you choose to laugh, like me, the 2013 Cubs figure to provide plenty of fodder. Instead of getting worked up over poor fundamentals, bad defense and simple inadequacies, chalk it up to the ongoing pains of rebuilding.
Trust me, it’s easier that way.
Take this past weekend’s four game series loss to the Giants, for example. It had all the makings of a classically difficult Cubs series.
Thursday’s game saw them squander a five run lead, spurred by Starlin Castro allowing a routine ground ball–hit by pitcher Ryan Vogelsong–through his legs. Friday, new closer Kyuji Fujikawa surrendered three runs in the 9th inning in just his third save situation, and then revealed he was injured. Saturday, Anthony Rizzo failed to get in position to take a cut off throw in the 7th inning, allowing Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner to score the decisive third run without a throw to the plate. Steve Clevenger’s game ending strike out landed him on the 60-day disabled list with a left oblique muscle strain.
And Sunday’s game was just your standard give-up-a-home-run-when-you’re-one-strike-away-from-winning, with your third closer, and then balk in the winning run in the next inning.
I decided to put the Benny Hill theme on in the background after the final out Sunday. It seemed like an appropriate ending to a four-day whirlwind of pain.
Last season, it was understood the Cubs wouldn’t compete. It was Theo Epstein’s first year at the helm after inheriting a woeful ball club that lost 91 games in 2011—Jim Hendry’s final year as general manager. That group dropped 101 games and spent the latter half of the year watching prospects from Hendry’s regime struggle at the major league level.
Expectations remain low. Epstein has spent as much time revamping the front office as he has signing international free agents and acquiring ancillary players for the major league roster. He has stressed patience, and Cubs fans have adjusted. They changed their outlook and rallied behind the farm system. The hope is that one day, these players will carry the team to success never consistently seen at Wrigley Field.
But at what point do those pains of rebuilding take on a more serious tone?
Judging from the first two weeks of the 2013 season, the Cubs remain far from competing. Epstein has said it may take until 2015 for this team to turn the corner. But at this point, there seem to be less than a handful of players on the current roster that will definitely be here for the eventual turnaround.
The longer this team continues to struggle on the major league level, the more pressure it places on prospects and other unproven commodities to validate Epstein, his management team, and themselves.
The more 90+ loss seasons fans endure, the greater the hunger for the eventual payoff of a playoff team—or World Series champion—grows.
I have long said that Cubs fans have no choice but to place their faith in Epstein’s plan. He is the most impressive baseball executive this franchise has ever had. But the longer the team fails where it counts, the more the pressure mounts. If the Cubs lose more than 90 games in each of the next two seasons, wouldn't it make the 2015 season a make or break season for the organization’s future?
At some point soon, the Cubs must show significant organizational progress on the major league level. If not, they could be setting themselves up for insurmountable pressure and expectation with players who may not be ready for it.
In the short term, several things need to take place. Anthony Rizzo could break out with an impressive 2013 season, his first full season as a Cub. Starlin Castro must significantly improve his defense. Jeff Samardzija can take the next step towards becoming a viable and valuable number two starter.
In the longer term, it means the team must acquire more substantial talent, not only in the draft but in free agency between this year and next, to show fans there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.
Cubs fans will remain on board for now, because the franchise can continue to sell them hope. But that support will be gone if, by September of 2014, we’re still talking about a team whose stock hasn’t risen.
You’ll be calling the post-game shows calling for a regime change. I’ll be questioning the direction of the team. And nobody will be laughing.