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Grasping At Air: Assessing The Cubs’ Rebuilding

Most of the time in sports, a team’s success or failure is easy to judge.

Win most of your games, make the playoffs, at least flirt with a championship or wildly exceed expectations, and you’ve had a successful season.

Finish below .500 and play unremarkably—or worse, remarkably bad—and you’ve failed.

But how do you gauge the success or failure of a team that never had a realistic intention of competing in the first place? A team whose leaders have trained their eyes on a vision of future success? A team like the 2013 Chicago Cubs?

By this point in the season, it is beyond obvious that this is not The Year. And yet, it has in many ways been arguably the most exciting season on the North Side since 2008. It’s obviously more fun to watch a team win. But watching them deconstruct, rebuild and grow under Theo Epstein has been the next best thing.

I know what you’re saying. Haven’t we seen this act before?

Call me a sucker. Call me an optimist. But here’s why this time I think there might be real reason to see hope in the 2013 Cubs.

They Actually Are, You Know, Rebuilding

Other than a few scattered years, the Chicago Cubs have pretty much been building or rebuilding since the Taft administration.

Which is OK, I guess. After all, it took the whole Ming Dynasty to construct the Great Wall. These things take time.

Trouble is, “rebuilding” has too frequently been an excuse to play bad baseball, a go-to talking point so oft-repeated it’s been bled of all its meaning. The last couple years, and this one in particular, though, have been different. The team says that they’re rebuilding, and actually seem to be doing it.

Rebuilding, of course, requires knocking down what’s already there, and the Cubs have done that. They’ve dealt solid players like Scott Feldman and Matt Garza in favor of young talent to develop. Leaders like Ryan Dempster and Alfonso Soriano, remnants of that great but colossally disappointing 2008 team, have been sent away in bittersweet deals for future stars.

Once the structure’s gone, you’ve got to construct something in its place. And finally, it seems there’s an actual blueprint. In the past few years, they’ve added youngsters with huge potential, like Junior Lake, Anthony Rizzo and Welington Castillo. Best of all, they actually seem to be putting their farm system to good use, letting promising players like Albert Almora, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler ripen in a minor league system that ESPN ranked the fifth-best in the entire MLB last spring.

Longtime Wrinkles Are Being Ironed Out

With a team as young as the Cubs, you have to allow for some of the roughness to be sanded smooth by time and experience.

That said, there are certain problems that have plagued the organization for years, and there finally seems to be an effort to improve them.

Though getting rid of Carlos Marmol at long last did not solve the longstanding closer problem, it didn’t hurt. And it went a long way in reassuring a weary fan base that the organization would no longer accept the status quo.

Marginal improvements made to the clumsy defense that played a large part in the team’s 101-loss campaign last year are perhaps nothing to get excited about. But the improvements made from the first half of this season to the second are.

After beginning the season with a 2012-like 58 errors, the Cubs improved their fielding percentage to a league best .989 over the month of July, committing only 17 errors over a nearly two-month span. If they continue to tighten up their D in the last quarter of the season, they could have a real opportunity to start 2014 as one of the strongest fielding teams in the National League.

On offense, the team’s biggest problem has been a lack of patience at the plate. While walking infrequently, the Cubs have relied far too heavily on the long ball to put runs on the board, as they’ve hit the seventh most in the majors (thanks in part to Soriano). Impressive, but ultimately unsustainable as they strike out more and walk less than two-thirds of the league. It’s kind of hard to score consistently when you’re not getting on base and your outs are unproductive, as evidenced by a recent three-game scoreless streak in the Friendly Confines.

That said, a second-half focus on patience has allowed the Cubs to climb to fourth in the NL with 338 walks – 100 of which have come since the All-Star Break. They have earned an average one more walk per game from the first half to the second. How important is that? In a recent 5-0 loss to the Reds, the Cubs didn’t walk once. The next night, in a 7-0 beat-down of the Cards, Chicago walked six times. Getting on base more frequently and generating runs, rather than leaning on home run balls that sometimes never show up, might give this team the consistency that’s eluded them for several years.

Of course, not everything is rosy.

Their stars, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, have had wildly disappointing seasons.

Castro, billed as the team’s shortstop of the future, hasn’t improved as quickly defensively as one would hope, gradually raising his fielding percentage from .950 in 2010 to 9.70 this year. Worse, he’s regressed at the plate, going from a .307 batting average with 91 runs and 66 RBIs two years ago to an uninspired .244 with just 48 runs and 32 RBIs.

Rizzo, though sporting an impressive .996 fielding percentage at first base, has batting statistics much more like the pitiable numbers he posted during his stint in San Diego than the power-hitter of the future he was billed as, hitting just .230 and driving in 65 runs.

If Rizzo and Castro turn out to be busts, the future suddenly doesn’t look so bright—and neither does Epstein.

And yet, despite those players’ disappointments…

Watching the Cubs Hasn’t Really Been That Bad

Most loyal fans will put up with a lot during a rebuilding year, but even the most patient among us will lose attention over a 162-game season if we don’t have something decent to watch. There’s a long gap between the end of hockey season and the beginning of football, and it seems ever longer when Chicago baseball isn’t worth watching.

And despite a record that would suggest otherwise, watching the Cubs this year has been sort of fun. They’ve had their blowout losses, sure. But most of the time, it’s been close games – one run losses, leads turned over by blown saves. Nothing terribly ugly. Most of the time, they’ve seemed within reach of the W. What’s that saying? Close only counts in horeshoes and hand grenades? I would add Cubs games.
Like Darwin Barney’s Gold Glove in 2012, a breakout performance by Travis Wood has captured fans’ imaginations. Wood has emerged as the team’s most consistent and dominant pitcher with a 3.13 ERA. He can hit, too.

Promising players. Some flashes of good baseball. Signs of good management. Who knows where it all will lead. But for Cubs fans, a century of losing has taught us this much: enjoy the little things and, as always, wait until next year.

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