I'll warn you now, this is going to be a long read, so have a seat with your morning coffee and settle in.
The idea for this article began as the Cubs appeared to be sailing along to a 3-0 win over the Mets Sunday afternoon. It would have been their fourth win in a row and moved them to nine games under .500.
So that got me thinking this (and hear me out, because obviously the Cubs didn't win Sunday, and that will be the point of this exercise): What if the Cubs continued on a bit of a winning streak, and the Pirates and Reds fell back to Earth, and at the All-Star break the Cubs found themselves, say, four or five games under .500 and four or five games out of the second wild card?
What then? Do you keep such a team together, maybe add a piece, and try to make a run at that second wild card? Because wild cards in recent seasons have done quite well in the postseason -- there's been at least one wild card in the league championship series every year but one (2009) since 2002, and in that time frame four wild cards have won the World Series (2002, 2003, 2004, 2011).
Or do you then punt on the season because as we all know, this team isn't really that good and the rebuilding process has to build a better base with "waves and waves of talent", as many here keep repeating?
Well, the Cubs didn't win Sunday, and that was the difference between nine games under .500 and 11 games under .500 and with a four-game series coming up beginning Monday night against the Cardinals, it would appear that the Cubs are heading toward being sellers rather than buyers at the trading deadline. They have quite a number of chips worth selling this season, including Scott Feldman and Matt Garza, among others.
Before I get to that, a few more words about Sunday's debacle, which is, in an odd way, related to all of this.
It's time to get Carlos Marmol off this team. It doesn't really matter how; he has zero trade value, but maybe you designate him for assignment and try to deal him. If it doesn't work within the 10 days, just release him. He has no value at all; there's about $5.5 million left on his deal, and I feel compelled to point out that in June 2006, the Diamondbacks released Russ Ortiz with $22 million remaining on his contract -- because Ortiz was hurting the team. At some point, performance like this hurts the team and its future.
It was stated in Sunday's recap thread that this mid-June game against the Mets was "virtually meaningless." I submit that it is meaningful to sweep a three-game series on the road against a team you haven't done that to in 22 years. That helps build a winning attitude and winning culture. Instead, you have a jaw-dropping defeat and excuses like this from Dale Sveum:
Sveum said he didn't want to use closer Kevin Gregg because he had pitched four straight days, and Marmol was the only other reliever with closing experience. "There are only certain people that can get those last three outs sometimes," Sveum said. "We all know that he's gotten a lot of saves in his career. But for some reason now … he doesn't quite have the slider he used to, so it's not that easy. But something is going on in the other innings that's not going on in the last inning."
Pardon my profanity, but no shit, Dale. You just now figured this out? You're supposed to be knowledgeable about these sorts of things, and pretty much everyone reading this site knew this and you didn't about Marmol? And then there are these comments from Alfonso Soriano:
"I'm not like that, but sometimes I've got to let it go," he said. "I don't want to keep it inside of me. Now I feel better. I think everybody feels the same. We needed that game to go to St. Louis with confidence." Why was Soriano so upset? "When we have a 99 (percent) chance to win the game, it's very tough the last inning," he said. "Three outs left and we lost the game. It's unacceptable, especially when we're winning 3-O and (Matt) Garza's pitching a very good game. "It's hard to swallow. We thought we swept those guys and had some momentum going to St. Louis. … It's not a good feeling."
(Aside: Soriano may not be a sabermetrician, but he was pretty close: according to FanGraphs, the Cubs had a 96.6 percent chance of winning the game before the ninth inning started.)
The point is: winning is contagious. Winning is important. Yes, Every. Single. Game. It breeds confidence, it breeds a winning attitude, and I don't particularly care about one space higher in the 2014 draft. How many years is this team going to do that?
Which brings me to the next point of this rather long, meandering article, and that is: prospects are just that, prospects. Take a look at this stat line:
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS 134 614 555 11O 178 53 5 43 116 7 3 48 134 .321 .381 .667 1.O47
Now that's a player you'd want on your team, right? That's a stat line from the Midwest League (mostly; it has 19 at-bats of mostly equivalent production from Triple-A included).
So who is it? That's Brandon Wood, from 2004, when he was 19 years old. He crushed Low-A pitching. He did pretty well at higher minor-league levels, but at the major-league level... not so much. Wood is now 28 and playing at Triple-A Norfolk (Orioles) and hitting .250/.293/.357, probably a washout. He ranked in the top 16 of major-league prospects three straight years, yet hit just .186/.225/.289 in 700 MLB plate appearances.
Let's look at another line which is more Cubs-related.
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS 137 597 541 94 166 38 O 39 12O 4 3 48 123 .3O7 .363 .593 .957
Wow! Another superstar, right? This is more Midwest League hitting, in this case, Brian Dopirak, who put up these numbers for the then-Cubs affiliate in Lansing in 2004, when he was 19. Where's Dopirak now? He should have been crushing baseballs out of Wrigley Field by now, right? Out of baseball for two years, after a couple of middling seasons at Triple-A.
How about this partial Triple-A season?
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS 45 194 164 44 67 14 3 17 53 2 1 21 31 .4O9 .495 .841 1.336
That one, you might recognize; it's the first two months of Jake Fox's 2009 season at Triple-A Iowa, the partial year that had pretty much every Cubs fan clamoring to have Fox come to the big leagues and take over... somewhere. The problem was that Fox couldn't play any position well (another argument for the DH), and his big-league hitting was just fair (.237/.288/.425 in 495 at-bats with 20 home runs). Now 30, Fox is playing the 2013 season in the Atlantic League.
These are just three examples. I could find dozens of others like this, and, in fact, I did exactly that, almost two years ago. I wrote that article in connection with Bryan LaHair, who many here thought would be the Next Big Thing; he had a good first half of 2012, got himself selected as one of the weirdest All-Star picks ever, and is now playing in Japan (and not very well, either: .249/.326/.478, though with 11 home runs, in 209 at-bats this year).
The point of all of this is: you can be excited by Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Rock Shoulders (and he's declined quickly, another example of how Midwest League numbers shouldn't fool you) and others, but they are all playing at the lower levels of the Cubs system. Baez excited everyone by hitting four home runs in a Florida State League game last week, but at the time that happened, it was mentioned that just one other player had ever done that in the 94-year history of the league. That was Ryan Harvey... who was selected with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2003 draft (same overall selection as Almora), and another Cubs pick who, like Dopirak, never made it. Harvey, now 28, is also toiling in the Atlantic League.
Some of you are excited about Kris Bryant and penciling him into the lineup in 2015 or 2016 ... the man isn't even signed yet and hasn't played a single professional game. Sure, he looks like a great talent and will likely succeed at the big-league level, but there are no guarantees.
I repeat, just so there is no misunderstanding: there are no guarantees with prospects. Sure, they look great now, and it appears that Theo & Co. have made good selections in their two years at this game. But if you think all of these players are going to be leading the Cubs to the postseason and the World Series in 2015, or 2016, or beyond, you have a better crystal ball than I do.
If the Cubs are going to trade off parts later this year, and at this point it looks like they're heading that way, they are going to lose 90-plus games again. At some point you have to stop doing this and at least try to win. I am not suggesting spending hundreds of millions of dollars on players like Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton, who were getting past their sell-by date and have turned out to be expensive busts. What I am suggesting is that the Cubs identify, this coming offseason, a couple of players to fill needed holes either by trade or by mid-range free agency, and go and sign them with the intention of beginning to contend in 2014. Then you can sprinkle in some of those younger players and let them grow up with the team, rather than expect them to magically sprout into All-Stars when they hit the big-league level. That would be nice, but you can't count on it.
As I have written here before -- and you'll find out soon exactly when this is -- upcoming later this summer is the 50th anniversary of the very first time I set foot in Wrigley Field. I started following the team intently, as intently as a kid can, and the blossoming of the late-1960s teams that never won anything but live on in our hearts coincided with the years that kids are the most interested in baseball, before the teen years intervene. That's the background I come from regarding the Cubs, and I know others here share that. You understand what I mean. If you're younger, you lived through 1984, or 1989, or 1998, and we likely all shared 2003, 2007, 2008 and other disappointments.
I'm tired of disappointments. It could be that we have the right management team in place to take the Chicago Cubs to the championships we've all dreamed of for our entire lives, because no living person can remember the Cubs winning the World Series -- and it's beginning to get to the point that few living people can even remember the Cubs being in the World Series. That's 68 years ago, so you'd have to be at least in your mid-70s to have any clear memory of that. Some of you may know, or know of, Jerry Pritikin -- a local photographer who used to hang around Wrigley as the "Bleacher Preacher". He's about that age. When Pritikin's father couldn't get World Series tickets for him in 1945, he told young Jerry, "Don't worry. They'll be back there next year, or soon," and given the Cubs' recent history up to 1945, anyone could have said that: the Cubs had been in the World Series five times in the 17 seasons from 1929-1945. Jerry, like the rest of us, is still waiting.
That's a long time ago, now; I personally know people who have lived and died without ever seeing the Cubs in the World Series. I don't want to be one of those people. It's time to start on the "parallel tracks" Theo Epstein mentioned, almost in passing, when he was hired: build the system and try to win games right here and now. Theo, it's time to win. You don't have to go for the "junk food high" (as BCBer elgato memorably put it) of the Jim Hendry years -- but how many more 90-plus loss seasons do we have to endure? This isn't about bloodless numbers. There's fan loyalty going back decades, and emotions and tears involved. How much longer? How many more tears, Theo?
Winning can be done. It must be done. We have had virtually infinite patience. But that patience is growing short.