Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
Is the current Cubs' rebuild similar to the one that happened after a similarly horrific season in 1962?
The Cubs’ primary goal in 2012 was to break in several of their top prospects at the major league level, a goal they accomplished with first baseman Anthony Rizzo, catcher Welington Castillo, center fielder Brett Jackson, and third baseman Josh Vitters, albeit with varying degrees of success. Nonetheless, the playing time devoted to those four in combination with the team’s young double-play combination of Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney and 26-year-old role players, such as third baseman Luis Valbuena, catcher Steve Clevenger, and center fielder Tony Campana, made last year’s assemblage of Cubs hitters the youngest (with age weighted by playing time) since that of the 1989 NL East Champions. In the coming season, increased playing time for Rizzo (23), Castillo (26), Jackson (24), and Vitters (23) should skew the 2013 Cubs hitters even younger.
Looking back over the history of the franchise for a team that had an offense significantly younger than the 2012 and 1989 teams we find the 1962 Cubs, whose hitters were nearly two years younger on average (weighted by playing time). The lineup featured Billy Williams (24) in left field, Lou Brock (23) in center, Ron Santo (22) at third base, and Rookie of the Year Ken Hubbs (20) at second base. Ernie Banks, who made the switch from shortstop to first base that spring, was the only member of the 1962 Cubs’ everyday starting lineup to have reached his age-30 season.
The Cubs were awful in 1962, losing 103 games and finishing eight games behind the expansion Houston Colt .45’s. That season concluded a solid decade of losing Cubs teams. Over those 10 years, the Cubs had lost 90 or more games six times, including in each of the last three seasons at that point. Five of those 90-loss seasons came in a 154-game schedule. They had finished in last place in a seven-team league five times, including in 1960 and ’61, and finished below .400 on the season three times, including in ’60 and ’62.
With that young lineup in place, however, things began to change in 1963. Led at the plate by Williams and Santo, in the field by Santo and Hubbs, and on the mound by 23-year-old lefty Dick Ellsworth, veteran right-hander Larry Jackson, and a strong bullpen, the 1963 Cubs surged to a multi-team tie for first place in early June and held a share of second place as late as July 19, at which point they were 51-42 (.548). They fell off the pace thereafter, but still managed to finish at 82-80, the franchise’s first winning record in 17 years.
This being the Cubs, there was as much misery as success in that team’s future. Hubbs died in a plane crash in February 1964 at the tender age of 22. Brock was traded to St. Louis that June in one of the most lopsided trades in major league history. Still, the three surviving members of that 1962 quartet were ultimately inducted into the Hall of Fame, and even if Brock earned his plaque with the rival Cardinals, Williams and Santo proved to be a strong enough core that Leo Durocher was able to build a winning club around them after being hired as the Cubs manager and effectively naming himself general manager in 1966.
Fifty years later, there’s potential for a similar performance in today’s Cubs team. They may not be ready for their close-up in 2013, but whereas the 1960s Cubs endured a rare tragedy with Hubbs and nearly shut the door after the horse was out of the barn by hiring Durocher only after the immediately regrettable Brock trade, the current Cubs have the advantage of having upgraded the front office in advance of the arrival of their young talent, reducing the likelihood of a comparable mistake.
The next step for the Cubs under Durocher, after establishing double-play combo Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger the year before his arrival, was trading veteran pitching to flesh out the team. They flipped relief ace Lindy McDaniel and center fielder Don Landrum to the Giants for catcher Randy Hundley and 25-year-old righty Bill Hands, and sent Jackson and rotation-mate Bob Buhl to the Phillies for a 23-year-old Fergie Jenkins. The Cubs did a little of that at last year’s trading deadline, getting third base prospect Christian Villanueva for Ryan Dempster, and the 2013 Cubs could have a similar opportunity with a healthy Matt Garza.
With Jeff Samardzija under team control for three more years and free-agent righty Edwin Jackson and team president Theo Epstein both under contract through 2016, the Cubs don’t seem likely to wait until the next wave of elite prospects, led by Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Albert Almora, arrives to make their move, and with the expanded playoff field, they may not need to. Heading into 2013, the Cubs have a talented young lineup, a new veteran Japanese reliever, and some upside gambles in their rotation. Yes, they’ve finished fifth each of the last three years, hitting bottom with a 101-loss season in 2012, and a .500 record seems like a pie-in-the-sky outcome for 2013, but just as it did after the 1962 season, the worm appears to be turning.