There's never really an off-time for Chicago sports. After a disappointing finish, the Blackhawks have had some feel-good news in terms of contract extensions. The Bulls remain involved in the Kevin Love sweepstakes and the NBA hot stove is still burning nicely. And Bear-bonnais is open for business, signalling the NFL season's inevitable citywide takeover.
But, heretic that I am, I'm just not a hockey fan. My passion for the NBA has waned greatly over the past decade or so too. And while I do love the Bears, this blog is called Cubs Insider and we've got a decent little window before attention turns completely from the interminable march of the baseball season.
You might think that the Chicago Cubs have already hit rock bottom, that there's nowhere to go but up for a team that has averaged nearly 94 losses over the past four years. But then you'd be discounting the possibility that the North Siders will find a way to bring out a shovel and pick-axe and dig themselves even deeper.
Don't get me wrong: I fully expect the team to improve, and soon. It's just that these are the Cubs, and Murphy's isn't just a bar where fans go to commiserate, it's the law. Things that can go wrong for the denizens of Wrigley Field do. With that in mind, I wrote back in January about five things the Cubs needed to avoid this season if they hoped to keep this rebuild on track.
As you may have seen with my 10 Bold Predictions, I'm not one to shy away from my past words, even those that would otherwise have been lost to the digital ether in the final exhalation of Yahoo Contributor Network's death rattle. So let's see whether and how the Cubs have managed to avoid some of the major pitfalls facing them thus far in 2014.
Losing the bidding war for Masahiro Tanaka
I think this one is pretty easy to determin. After the will-they-or-won't-they ping-pong match regarding the Rakuten Golden Eagles' decision to post their star pitcher, and then the frenzied final days of his decision, Tanaka ended up in New York with the Yankees.
I had felt that winning the bidding war for Tanaka was a must for the Cubs (cue toilet-flushing noise), and his hot start had me thinking that the Cubs had really soiled the bed on this one. Landing him would have been a sign that the team was ready to compete, and to spend real money to do it. Seeing Tanaka in a Cubs uniform would satisfy the fans hungry for a win-now mentality and also those who support the current slow-and-steady youth movement.
To me, Masahiro Tanaka represented both the tortoise and the hare, and losing out on him meant less hope, fewer W's, and more empty seats. Then again, you can't lose what you never really had, so maybe missing out on Tanaka isn't that bad. But an elbow injury and the wise words of fellow CI writer Ryan Davis may have me believing that the Cubs may have dodged a bullet.
It's too soon to know whether losing out on Tanaka was a good thing or an epic fail, but given his current circumstances, I'm inclined to believe they may be better off without him. If that plays out, the Cubs' loss is also their gain.
Tanaka wasn't the only pitcher whose future with a team had been in question this past offseason. Jeff Samardzija rumors had been flying around faster than the title creatures Sharknado 2. Would the Cubs offer him a lucrative extension? Would he be traded for prospects? Of course, we all know now that both ended up being true.
I wrote back in January that whether the team was depending on Samardzija to be a cornerstone or to bring one back in a trade, he needed to perform at a high level. After indeed looking like the potential ace who Jim Hendry paid enough to avoid the NFL, Shark is now a part of the title-contending A's rotation.
But his high performance also enabled the Cubs to pry top prospect Addison Russell from Oakland, along with Billy McKinney and Dan Straily. Adding that trio the already fertile land the Cubs possessed gives them what many feel is the best farm in baseball.
Continued stagnation of Castro and Rizzo
Management and ownership aside, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro have borne the brunt of the blame for the Cubs' lack of success. Dale Sveum was fired for his inability to communicate with the young players on the team, which means that the pressure falls even more squarely on their shoulders now that he's gone.
In looking ahead to the young Cubs duo's performance, I wrote: "I'm not going to talk about advanced metrics, tough love, or potential here. These two players are being paid to produce, and they need to start doing so at a very high level, lack of lineup protection (which I'm told is a myth, akin to a unicorn) be damned."
There's a lot of baseball left to be played, but Starlin Castro has looked like his old self at the plate and his defense is showing a good deal of improvement. But the real revelation has been Anthony Rizzo, who has eclipsed even the highest hopes from the legions of Pollyannas out there in Cubdom. Both were All Stars, and both appear ready to lead the charge into a new era.
Failure of two or more of the big four
Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler. Call them the Big 4, the Fantastic 4, or just four more reasons for Cubs fans to look forward to next year. Talent development is a crapshoot, but when you bet the house on your foundation, you'd better win and win big.
And then you've got Arismendy Alcantara making his mark with the big club, Kyle Schwarber mashing through the minors like Bruce Banner's alter ego, and the aforementioned guys from the Shark/Hammel trade. And that's just the big names. Still, for all the hype surrounding the big names, the Cubs need them to pan out sooner rather than later.
There are rumblings that we may see the likes of Baez, and maybe even Soler, at Wrigley late in the season. The true measure of this group though will come next season, when several of them should be up. If these guys don't come up and start contributing almost immediately, it could deal a significant blow to the rebuilding effort, both in theory and on the field.
Rick Renteria losing the locker room
Theo Epstein had hand-picked Dale Sveum to mold and improve the team's young players and to lead the Cubs to winning baseball. Sveum did neither and ended up a scapegoat for the futility of the last couple years. Enter Ricky Renteria, a little-known baseball lifer who came over from, surprise, the San Diego Padres.
No one expected the new manager to turn this thing around overnight, but Renteria absolutely must hold the trust of his team, the fans, and the media. The Cubs can't afford to have the same revolving door at manager; it'd be like the College of Coaches all over again. If you're building a new home and you keep changing contractors, you're going to end up with a pretty shoddy house…if you ever get it built at all.
Sure, there have been some questionable moves, and some of us could probably do without all the bunting, but there's no doubt that Renteria has connected better with the Cubs' young players. He's also displayed a great deal more personality than the milquetoast Sveum, which is a welcome change. David Kaplan agrees with me on that point, so I got that going for me, which is nice.
Any one of these events or issues coming to fruition might have been just a minor annoyance if taken in a vacuum. But if the dominoes had started toppling and three or more had taken place, the only thing more unbearable than the Cubs would be a radio show co-hosted by Skip Bayless and Mike North, perhaps with Stephen A. Smith as a frequent guest.
As it is, they're still painful to follow a great deal of the time. But despite the terrible record and what will inevitably be another late-season death spiral, the Cubs have avoided the worst possible pitfalls. Listen, I don't like measuring a season's success in terms of a team's general avoidance of catastrophic events any more than you do, but that's really what we're left with here.
We can all easily decipher the big, bold letters and numbers that spell out the Cubs' record and their various statistical shortcomings, but those don't tell all there is to understand. No, if we're to play the part of Paul Harvey, we need to look deeper, to the watermarks that lie below the surface writing.
The good news is that those cryptic ciphers are becoming clearer all the time, even for those who suffer from myopic vision or even illiteracy. The frustration of those folks is more than merited, but I think that, soon enough, we'll all know the rest of the story.
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