Progress isn't linear.
How many times have we heard that? Probably not quite as often as we forget it. We tend to believe that things move in a steady direction with a definite beginning, middle, and end. We tend to think in terms of destination, and we take the perspective as a point A to point B ride. And thus we think of how far we are from our destination in relation to our current vantage point-- only to be fooled time and again that it wasn't as close or as far as it appeared.
I don't see things in that way and while it may make me sound like some glassy-eyed optimist, I'm not letting the current state of the team define how good this team can be next season.
I see a team making progress. Really.
I saw a team this year that improved it's ability to hit for power, had another good season from their starting pitchers, played solid defense, and when the team was in tact, they showed the ability to compete in this league. This was illustrated with mid-season run differential numbers that were more indicative of a team that was in the middle of the pack rather than one that was destined for yet another top 6 pick.
The season has since gone south but it hasn't been all bad. The Cubs may have found a few more long term pieces in catcher Welington Castillo, Travis Wood, Blake Parker, and Pedro Strop. Perhaps Junior Lake and Jake Arrieta can be a part of the solution as well.
There were role players that emerged. Luis Valbuena, Nate Schierholtz, Donnie Murphy, Dioner Navarro, and others all have helped the team win at times. These aren't guys you build around, but every team needs players who can step when the stars have an off night.
But I'm not that much of an optimist. It doesn't take a baseball genius to understand that that's not enough.
Not everything took a step forward. The bullpen was a disaster and blew an inordinate amount of games, especially early in the season when in just about every other aspect, the Cubs were playing .500 baseball.
Another big problem is that the Cubs just don't have those stars -- or to put it in more appropriate terms, impact players, that can carry the team day in and day out. The team was hoping to get that kind of production from two then 23 year old players, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, both of whom were unable to carry the load at this stage of their respective careers.
That wasn't a given when the season started. Optimism ran high with both of those players. Even the most pessimistic Cubs fan could be heard to say, "Well, at least we have Rizzo and Castro to look forward to this year".
What if we had been right? What if Castro took the next step forward and became a .290/.350/.450 shortstop with 20 HRs and consistent defense? What if Rizzo really did turn into that high OBP guy with 30 HRs and Gold Glove caliber defense as we all thought he would.
What if the bullpen would have been just average?
Granted we can play the what if game all day -- but those aren't outlandish possibilities. We could have rationally expected those things to happen and nobody would have asked us what we'd been smoking.
Now, think of those completely reasonable expectations coming to fruition and combining them with what actually did happen -- which was good starting pitching, improved power, and a team that competed well on a day to day basis. Now imagine adding Rizzo and Castro to that and a bullpen that didn't blow half of those games. Where would the Cubs have been?
Would they have traded Matt Garza, David DeJesus, Alfonso Soriano or even Scott Feldman? Could they have even been buyers and added yet another piece or two?
The point is that maybe the Cubs aren't as far away as you think and, unless you think that Castro and Rizzo are lost causes after a bad season, then that outlook doesn't change much heading into next season.
In the offseason, the Cubs will discard the pieces that didn't work and keep the ones that did. They will likely add pieces to the puzzle -- some of which will work, some of which won't -- but the accumulation of the parts that actually do work will continue. Eventually, the team will reach a tipping point and, considering that it was entirely possible that could have happened this year with just reasonably better years from Rizzo, Castro, and the bullpen, who's to say the Cubs can't reach that tipping point in 2014?
Despite the aforementioned issues, the Cubs were 48-55 on July 28th. Is it outlandish to believe the Cubs could have been 55-48 instead? It's only a 7 game swing and it would have changed the outlook of the entire season. Is it unrealistic to believe that very scenario could unfold next season with better years from Castro, Rizzo, and the bullpen -- plus whatever additions they bring in?
If the Cubs have that 55-48 record by July 28th of 2014, we can expect that they'll not only be buyers at that deadline, but that they would also be in the position to add in-house talent such Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Arodys Vizcaino (and other bullpen arms) and perhaps even Kris Bryant, Pierce Johnson or CJ Edwards.
And if something like that happens, everyone will be calling the Cubs the surprise of 2014 -- but that's only because people insist on thinking from a strictly linear perspective.
Progress isn't linear.
Or have you forgotten that already?
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