They don’t need to be reminded of their failures, they’ve not forgotten them. In fact, their anthem is “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” their recanted memoirs are 1908 and Steve Bartman, Virgil Trucks’ Game Two return from World War II in the 1945 World Series, the College of Coaches and a Lee Smith pitch to Steve Garvey go down with the cold ones in the friendly confines, and even an emergence like that of Anthony Rizzo is somehow pushed through the cracks of time.
We understand what they are now. They have the worst record in the National League, they are involved in a ballpark turf war that has marginalized what should be a market advantage in the third biggest market, if not one of the greatest sports—especially baseball—markets in the hemisphere. Then I look at Kris Bryant’s first 100 professional games, with 31 homers, a .351 average, .436 on base percentage and ,707 slug, and I dream about the day in 1977 I rode the L from Wrigley, after a day game, all the way South to Commiskey, an early summer day when the Cubs were running off to a 47-22 start by June 28 and the White Sox were 3 ½ games up and vividly recall what that city is like when the weather’s right and they’re out there on the Lake Michigan beaches and the Cubbies and the White Sox are in the discussion…
And, yeah, the Cubs finished .500. But even when New York City blacked out as their flight into the city was landing at LaGuardia three weeks later, it still seemed like October was going to be a Bill Veeck/Harry Caray moment.
Now I’m thinking about June, 2016, and the argument about Kris Bryant vs. Jose Abreu and the voices of Len Kasper and The Hawk and Ed Farmer. I’m thinking about the near one hour of video I watched of Kyle Schwarber—who by the way went to Boise and homered in his first game Friday– and how John Hart knew that the best hitter in college baseball fit between Bryant—the best player in the 2013 and 2014 drafts—and Javier Baez and the thoughts of the sliders of Chris Sale and Carlos Rodon…
And how by then the AEG Grammys’ Chicago Blues Museum should be open not far from 2120 So. Michigan Avenue and we’re all going to Chicago, if we have to hitchhike all the way. This isn’t a business of short term turnarounds that last longterm. Bobby Cox called the rebuilding of the Braves a six-to-eight year project when he went there as Director of Baseball Operations after the 1985 World Series, and he was right. Pittsburgh and Kansas City have been well run, their drafts well financed, and Neal Huntington and Dayton Moore know Cox was right. The Astros are on a nice run now, but it will be 2017 before we really know how that project works.
The Cubs record is poor, 27-38, last. Their peripherals like run differential are essentially the same as the Reds and Pirates, sabotaged by the worst record in the league in one run games. They do not hit; they’re 12th in the league in runs, 12th in homers, 13th in on base percentage (.298) with a .668 OPS better only than the Mets and Padres, who play in parks their own hitters abhor. They don’t have much speed, hence the worst stolen base percentage in the league.
But as they wait to see how and when Bryant, Schwarber and their other young position players get to Wrigley, the progression of their two 24-year old regulars give them reason to believe that they will be players on whom to lean when the farm system moves up and in. Anthony Rizzo has an OPS over .900 with 13 homers in early June, but he has demonstrated the capacity to learn. In his three previous learning seasons, Rizzo had a .194 average and .617 OPS against lefthanders; this season, his OPS against lefties is 1.037. “He has demonstrated the capacity to listen and make adjustments,” says General Manager Jed Hoyer, who twice traded for him. “He’ll be an important person for the young players to be around when they come up,” says Theo Epstein.
The other 24-year old, Starlin Castro, has nine homers, his .772 OPS is the fourth best among National League shortstops. And as it becomes clearer where and when the young players will fit in, Epstein and Hoyer can find both the right free agents and the right veterans to assist in the major league development process.
What is also and obviously critically important is building the pitching, by trade, by development, by smart free agent acquisitions. Go back to last summer. They traded Matt Garza to Texas for C.J. Edwards, a very good big-armed prospect, as well as Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm (as well as Mike Olt). Ramirez and Hector Rondon—a Rule V acquisition—have combined for a 55-16 strikeout-walk ratio in 42 innings. Grimm has a 3.00 ERA out of the pen. Add in Brian Schlitter, and after a dreadful start as Rick Renteria searched for what worked, the Cubs bullpen is 5th in the league in ERA, second in lowest OPS against.
They also traded Scott Feldman to the Orioles for Pedro Strop, another big bullpen arm, and Jake Arrieta, who in eight starts has a 2.09 ERA and a 43-14 strikeout-walk ratio in 44 innings. Jeff Samardzija has a 2.77 ERA, Jason Hammel 2.81, Edwin Jackson has been more consistent, and while Travis Wood’s ERA is high, his OPS is higher than that of Hanley Ramirez.
So, now Epstein and Hoyer are exploring the Hammel and Samardzija markets. And as they evaluate who among Edwards, Kyle Hendricks, Dallas Beeler, Corey Black, Pierce Johnson and Arodys Vizcaino can be rotation or bullpen pieces, they stack potential offers. And, appreciating the cost of free agent pitching, Epstein insists there’s still a possibility that they try to convince Samardzija that the building structure is close to being in place and sign him.
Bryant has star written all over him. They’re convinced Schwarber, 4.15 down the line, can play left field, so in the not-too-distant future they can have Bryant, Schwarber, Javier Baez and Rizzo in the middle of the order, right-left-right-left. Jorge Soler is again healthy and in double-A. They love Albert Almora. By the end of next season, when the Wrigley renovation is in motion and the rooftop suits are in the final hands of the attorneys, they can go out into the market for a Jason Heyward, or some prime free agent.
To the South, Jerry Reinsdorf has never panicked and made sweeping cosmetic changes, then when his baseball people asked for the money to get an Abreu, he wrote the check. Reinsdorf knows that the baseball business is not marketing, shrill promises or finger-pointing—something someone should explain in Arizona and San Diego—but consistent business practices. The Ricketts Family similarly seems to grasp that, as well, and know that when the ballpark and television revenues increase, they will spend to acquire what they haven’t developed, as the Braves did with Terry Pendleton, Greg Maddux and Fred McGriff when Cox’s window reached its sixth season.
That June and July of 1977 seemed so novel, less than a decade from the White Sox bankruptcy and the Cubs’ nightmare of 1969. The southbound train had magic, more so that 2008, when both teams finished first, for a combination of reasons that makes what’s in front of us now so much fun will be the calls to The Score with White Sox fans taunting Cubs fans with the 2005-1908 reminders, Cubs fans singing along with Eddie Vedder and, maybe best of all, the daily comparisons of Jose Abreu and Kris Bryant, with an occasional thought about that ride, and hearing Oscar Gamble say, “I’m in scoring position every time I step into the batter’s box.”