The Morning After
Monday, September 30, 2013 — Theo Epstein wakes in his Lakeview home the morning after the Cubs’ season-ending win over the hated Cardinals. Despite the uplifting finale, Epstein dwells on the things that went badly in 2013. And there were plenty of them.
Epstein palms down the plunger on his French press. He’s come a long way from the optimism that brewed 18 months earlier when he was spotted at a Starbucks near Wrigley Field, fueling rumors he’d be hired to fix the most badly broken sports franchise in America. He doesn’t bother reading the paper or opening up his computer this morning. He doesn’t need to read their epilogues on what was the worst season in all his years in a front office.
He grabs his phone and calls General Manager Jed Hoyer. “You ready to do this?” he asks, knowing they have no choice. Epstein drives to Wrigley Field, picking up Hoyer along the way. They spot construction crews when they get to the stadium, a sign the organization hasn’t wasted time in starting the five-year renovation project that will bring Chicago’s baseball cathedral into the 21st century. The offseason may be 12 hours old, but progress waits for no one.
That progress was supposed to be evident on the field, as well. When the team lost 101 games in 2012, they were supposed to be at rock bottom. Epstein and Hoyer promised a sweeping culture change and a new emphasis on run prevention and on-base skills. A new “Cub Way.” We would see incremental gains in 2013, they said, and a possible run at the playoffs in 2014. By 2015, when Jorge Soler and Javier Baez and Albert Almora all hit their strides, the Cubs would be perennial contenders.
Except…in 2013 the Cubs went 60-102.
Epstein steps to the podium and speaks as cameras click: “Obviously this wasn’t the season any of us expected to have,” he says. “We didn’t think we’d be sitting here today talking about a team that won 60 games, but we are. A disappointment of this magnitude requires change, and that’s why we’ve informed Dale that he will be relieved of his managerial duties, effective immediately….”
An unlikely scenario, you say? A bad dream? Maybe yes, maybe no. Theo Epstein isn’t going to say it, and Cubs fans aren’t going to want to hear it, but the possibility is real and not all that remote: The Cubs could be worse this year.
First, let’s note the fact that essentially everyone—from the front office to Cubs fans to baseball writers to stat geeks to eternal pessimists in bars on Clark Street—believes the Cubs will be better this year. Over at Fangraphs, noted Cubs fan Bradley Woodrum ran a projection to determine how many games the Cubs would win this year, using a team Wins-Against-Replacement calculator. He came away with a range of 77 to 79 wins, mostly thanks to pitching upgrades made during the offseason.
The Cubs added starters Edwin Jackson, Carlos Villanueva, Scott Baker, and Scott Feldman to the rotation mix. In 2012, Jackson, Villanueva and Feldman combined for 5.6 WAR and a 4.37 ERA (Baker missed the entire season with injury, but posted 2.8 WAR and a 3.14 ERA in 2011). Epstein and Hoyer also signed Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, who had a career 1.36 ERA, 202 saves, and 510 strikeouts in six seasons with the Hanshin Tigers.
The offense might improve, too, as Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo blossom. Darwin Barney gives the team stability at second, and Welington Castillo gives it hope behind the plate. If Brett Jackson can start cutting down on his strikeouts, he could position himself alongside Castro, Rizzo, and Jeff Samardzija as part of the franchise’s future. And we’re also talking about a team that lost 101 games a year ago. That’s not exactly a high bar to clear when your goal is simply “better than last season.”
So how does this team lose 102 games? Five easy pieces…
Piece #1: The Schedule
After opening the season with a three-game series in Pittsburgh, which isn’t the cakewalk it once was, the next six weeks are murderous. They travel to Atlanta the first weekend of the season, then come home to host the Brewers, Giants and Rangers. They finish off April with trips to Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Miami before getting a brief respite at home against the Padres. But then the Reds and Cardinals come to town, followed by a trip to the nation’s capital for a weekend series against the Nationals. The Cubs play all five National League playoff teams from a year ago, as well as the Rangers within their first 38 games. That’s no way for a team coming off 101 losses to start the season. Let’s say they go 12-26.
The Cubs are surely going to miss the Astros, who decamped for the American League. Their 8-7 record from last season against their former division foe might not seem like much, but it was the best head-to-head record the Cubs had against any team in 2012. The Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Pirates all look like they could be contenders this season. The Cubs will have a difficult time making up for those eight games they took last season from the ‘Stros.
Piece #2: The Future Falls Flat
The narrative that says the Cubs improve in 2013 rests heavily on Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo becoming stars, a formidable middle-of-the-order duo around which to build the offense. But both could experience growing pains.
Let’s say Castro, who famously hates cold weather, can’t get untracked once the team heads north to start the season. He slogs through April, hitting just .218/.287/.337. And let’s say, even though he’s in his fourth full year in the majors, he can’t shake his free-swinging ways. According to Fangraphs, that problem already got worse in 2012. Castro swung at 50.2 percent of all the pitches he saw last season, including 37.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, both career highs. His contact rate dipped to a career-low 83.1 percent, and he swung and missed at 8.3 percent of pitches, also the worst mark of his career. The league has the book on Castro now. He can hit, but you don’t have to give him anything good to induce a swing, especially with the weak lineup surrounding him. Throw hittable pitches just off the plate, and he’ll get himself out with weak contact. And then watch as he gets in his own head and starts throwing the ball into the seats. He could end up leading the league in errors. I’m thinking 33.
And what about Rizzo? Let’s say he starts well. Let’s say he’s near the top of the home run leaderboard by May 1 and hits .294/.351/.517 with 18 jacks going into the All Star break. But, remember, he’s still only 23, without a full season at the major league level. Maybe the rigors of a full major league season start to catch up with him in July, and it carries into August. Suddenly the Cubs are losing a lot of low-scoring games. Because if Rizzo and Castro don’t hit, who will? Alfonso Soriano? Does anyone really believe he’s going to stay healthy and duplicate last year’s performance? Not if they acknowledge that his .303 BABIP from a year ago was his best since 2007 (a year he still managed to steal 19 bases), nor that his 24.9 strikeout rate was the highest of his entire career. Those peripherals suggest Soriano was incredibly fortunate a year ago. I’m 28 years old and have been a Cubs fan my whole life. Fortune is rarely on their side. It won’t be on Soriano’s this year.
If those three don’t hit, the Cubs could end up falling short of the anemic 613 runs they scored a year ago.
Piece #3: The Supporting Cast Fails to Support
Another crutch of the “2013 will be better” argument is that the supporting players will fill in around Castro, Rizzo and Soriano better than they did last season. But can we really expect much improvement from the uninspiring group that was largely held over from 2012? The only new pieces are Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston, who could end up as a left/right platoon in right field. Schierholtz hit righties to the tune of .287/.360/.466 last year, while Hairston went .286/.317/.550 against lefties. They should be an upgrade over the Marlon Byrd/Joe Mather/Brett Jackson triumvirate from 2012. Of course, trek out to the baseball-rich Central Suburban League and Mid-Suburban League in Chicago’s north and northwest suburbs, and you’re bound to find a handful of high schoolers who could have given the Cubs more than those three did last year.
Beyond that, I’m struggling to understand why the complementary pieces will do any complementing this year. Ian Stewart? Please. He is who he is: a career .232/.319/.417 hitter who has played 103 games the past two seasons and has disappointed legions of fantasy owners.
Darwin Barney? Hey, I love the guy in the field, but he has a career .654 OPS in 1,244 plate appearances, and carries a career ground-ball rate near 50 percent. He might be entering his age-27 season, but I’m not exactly holding my breath and waiting for him to turn into Mark Grudzielanek.
Welington Castillo? He was solid if not spectacular as the backup last year, hitting .265/.337/.418 in 170 at-bats. He also showed some pop in the minors, posting an .875 OPS with 15 homers at Triple-A Iowa in 2011. He’ll also turn 26 in April, and didn’t log significant time in the majors until last year. That’s the stamp of a career backup. Could he be a late bloomer, the way Geovany Soto was during his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2008? I guess. I’m just not banking on it.
David DeJesus? He’s the one guy you could talk me into a little bit, with his career .281 batting average and .355 OBP. He can play all three outfield positions and has a discerning eye at the plate. He’s also 33 years old.
An offense might be able to get by with one or two of these guys, especially given what Barney and DeJesus deliver defensively. The Cubs will start all four. Every day. And this offense is going to be better than it was a year ago? Hmm.
Piece #4: The Sell-off
If the Cubs manage to remain semi-respectable through June, it will be thanks to the starting rotation. Jeff Samardzija and Matt Garza could prove to be a capable 1-2 punch, though neither has been a true ace, and Garza is expected to spend the first month of the season the DL. Edwin Jackson gives the Cubs a reliable No. 3 starter. If Scott Baker stays healthy and is true to his high-strikeout, low-walk form — and if the winds are blowing in to help him avoid a tendency to give up home runs — he could be fine. That leaves Carlos Villanueva, Travis Wood, and Scott Feldman vying for the final spot. Could be worse.
Unfortunately for Cubs fans, most of those starters will be trade bait. Matt Garza will likely be the first to go if he can get healthy. If Scott Baker has a good first half, he’s next, followed by the versatile Villanueva. Soriano will finally find an American League team desperate for a DH. And here’s more bad news for Cubs fans: Carlos Marmol remains untradeable. Get ready for walks and wild pitches galore with another year of the Marmolcoaster. Don’t be alarmed if you’re nauseous. We all are.
To sum it up, a rotation that once went Samardzija, Garza, Jackson, Baker, Villanueva now goes Samardzija, Jackson, Wood, Feldman, and Brooks Raley, with a dash of Chris Rusin just for laughs. We laugh to hide the tears. The Cubs go into a second-half spiral.
Piece #5: Malaise
In the dead of August, who wants to watch a team that’s 30-plus games under .500? Attendance at Wrigley slips almost to U.S. Cellular levels. Wrigleyville remains lively, but inside the ballpark it’s a mausoleum. Beer vendors report their lowest sales since Prohibition. Meanwhile, fans who focused on the Bulls and Blackhawks well into June are already turning their attention to the Bears.
The sense of hopelessness affects the team. Given a chance to play every day after Soriano’s departure, Brett Jackson makes the least of it, pressing for home runs every time up and striking out in 35 percent of his at bats. He finishes .233/.321/.399.
Josh Vitters proves once and for all that his name will not be etched alongside Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez in Cubs lore. The team gives him one more chance after a solid year at Triple-A Iowa, but he appears consigned to his fate as a Quadruple-A player. He gets a two-month run as the starter but barely improves on his .121/.193/.202 slash line from 2012.
The youth movement will have to wait for Soler, Baez and Almora — along with the young talent acquired in the trades for Soriano, Garza, and the rest.
“…We certainly did not envision ourselves taking a step back this season, and that’s exactly what happened,” Epstein says. “Dale is a casualty of that. Understand that we remain committed to the new Cub Way. Despite our record, we think we’re still working toward that, and we like a lot of the pieces we have. We never thought it would be a quick fix here. You know, it’s almost analogous to the construction project that began today. You assemble a few pieces at a time, and before you know it, you’ve got something beautiful. We will have something beautiful. We believe it will start showing next year.”
The press conference ends. Epstein and Hoyer say their goodbyes before both head off for short vacations. If they want to avoid repeating the 2013 season, they’ll have a lot of work to do. The pressure is on. If the Cub Way doesn’t start showing through in 2014, it could be Ricketts convening a somber postseason press conference to discuss the job status of his president of baseball operations and general manager.
Progress waits for no one.