Usually by this time of year I’m waiting for the season to end. I watch the games with less enthusiasm, almost as a sense of obligation. Part of me wants to close my eyes and just say, “tell me when it’s over” and then, when I open them up again, I look to see the Cubs have secured yet another top 5 draft pick.
Usually. But not this year.
This year I’m tuning in to see the maturation of Starlin Castro. I look forward to witnessing the ongoing breakout seasons of Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta. I dream about the possibilities brought by the fast-twitch athleticism of Arismendy Alcantara and the violent bat speed of Javier Baez.
There is the artistry of Kyle Hendricks and the deceptively quick Tsuyoshi Wada. I no longer cringe when the Cubs make the call to their bullpen. These guys throw strikes and brings multiple weapons to each appearance. I even enjoy seeing quality ballplayers like Luis Valbuena, Chris Coghlan, and Justin Ruggiano settle into roles rather than being the guys who are asked to carry the load.
And there is more to come. I eagerly anticipate the arrival of Jorge Soler in September as well as the fireballing duo of Arodys Vizcaino and Armando Rivero. Next year brings a whole new wave that will be led by Kris Bryant and, later, Addison Russell.
It’s getting harder to separate wanting to see these players to do well from a genuine desire to want to see the Cubs win.
I have to admit I got a great deal of satisfaction when the Orioles came to town with their “occupy Wrigley” hubris and the Cubs took out their brooms and swept their suddenly silent fans back to Baltimore. It wasn’t an accident. The Cubs thoroughly outplayed the AL East leaders in every aspect. The next time they come to Wrigley, I guarantee you it’s going to be with a lot more respect.
And yes, I know this is irrational. Nobody has to tell me the value of say, the #3 pick vs. the #11 pick — especially with the current environment created by the CBA. I get it. I’ve been one of those fans standing on my head when looking at the standings for 2 years now.
But there comes a point where you have to start winning ballgames. Dave Cameron wrote about this two years ago for Fangraphs,
There is a point at which it makes sense to just blow the roster up and start over. But that point is when you get enough long term value in exchange for your short term assets to make the trade-off worth it. You shouldn’t just implode your team on purpose in an effort to be bad simply for the sake of earning a higher draft pick.
It appears the Cubs are passing the point where losing makes sense. One thing we should not that this year it’s different in terms of how the Cubs are winning — or perhaps more accurately, who is doing the winning. The Cubs won those games behind players like Arrieta, Alcantara, Baez, and their young bullpen. They have won other games behind the play of Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. They are winning games with players that we expect will actually be here next year.
A common mistake is that we assume one year’s record directly correlates to the next. Intuitively we expect improvement to be incremental as we add one piece at a time. But as we have heard repeatedly, progress is not linear. As Cameron explains, there is too much variation for us to forecast records so neatly.
There’s too much variation in baseball for teams to simply accept their most recent record as evidence of their short term future. There’s too many things that simply can’t be projected — and too much uncertainty around the things we do know — for more than one or two teams per year to simply punt the entire season and lose on purpose. Trading from the present to improve the future is one thing; trading from the present simply because we see no future is another thing entirely, and requires a level of certainty in forecasting that we simply don’t have.
We can’t control when things start to click for a team. Ideally we’d like to set things up where everything comes together on Opening Day next season. so the Cubs can have their cake and their top 2015 draft pick too.
I’m a Cubs fan, though. I can’t be choosy. I am taking on the field progress whenever it comes — even if it comes at the cost of a better draft pick. Some of that progress may be happening right now, something we may not fully appreciate until next season.
If the Cubs decide they’re going to start to play good baseball midway through a “meaningless” season, I am not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I am going to sit back and enjoy it. You have often read that I root for the Cubs no matter what the situation. Why? It’s simple. Because I like to see them win. At heart, I’m a fan. They are going to win or lose based on their play on the field, so it really doesn’t matter how I root.
The past two years, that play on the field would have deteriorated by this point, but the Cubs have not collapsed after the trade deadline this year. They could have. They lost 16 of the next 19 games after the Jeff Samardzija deal and everyone, including me, was talking draft pick again. I have to admit, however, that I was initially disappointed. We had all heard the Cubs had more talent this time and weren’t going to go into another 2nd half nosedive.
It turns out that they haven’t. Since then the Cubs have gone 15-11 and, in fact, have gone 45-45 a rocky 40 game start (13-27). Take away that bad post-trade stretch and the Cubs have gone 42-29.
Of course, we can’t just whisk that away. That rough stretch is every bit a part of the season as the good play that has sandwiched it. It may even be an integral part of their growth. While we don’t like to see it, we know that in the long run. it helps young hitters to slump and make adjustments. They often come out the better for it. Perhaps the same applies to a young team that struggles through adversity and overcomes it. Bruce Miles wrote that there is a certain vibe with the Cubs this year.
“There is some energy, obviously,” manager Rick Renteria said. “I’m hopeful the energy that they have and the guys that have been here that it’s coming together, they’re jelling. It doesn’t hurt you when you’re playing good baseball.
“Your spirits are uplifted when you have some of the young men coming through in big situations with some timely hits or some really nice defensive plays. It doesn’t hurt you, and it doesn’t hurt the atmosphere. It doesn’t hurt the mood of the club. I think it just breeds confidence in each other.”
What seems apparent is that this Cubs team believes it can win and they have the emerging talent to back it up. They are having fun and playing with confidence. It appears that this August they are actually looking forward to going out there and competing.
And I, for one, am looking forward to watching them do it.
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