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The 2018 Cubs are an enigma

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They’re talented, but haven’t gone on a run yet. I still think they have one in them.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs won 292 games from 2015-17. That’s an average of 97 wins per season, something the franchise hadn’t done over a three-year period since 1909-11.

And if they continue to play at their current winning percentage, they’ll win 93 games, one more than last year and probably enough to win the N.L. Central for the third straight year and make the postseason for the fourth straight season.

The last time the Cubs franchise won 90+ games for four straight seasons was 1909-12, more than a century ago.

So why do we now have so much angst? So much doubt that this is still a very good Cubs team?

After all, they still are near the top of the N.L. in runs, just two behind the Braves. And despite the starting rotation getting pounded on seemingly a regular basis, they rank sixth in the league in fewest runs allowed, just 20 more runs than the league-best Nationals.

In some ways, then, the 2018 season is Joe Maddon’s finest managing job. Here is what he has had to deal with:

  • One of his expected top starting pitchers, Yu Darvish, ineffective and then out for the last three months.
  • Another starting pitcher, Tyler Chatwood, walking enough hitters to lead the major leagues.
  • The rest of the rotation ineffective much of the time, and the entire staff leading the N.L. in most walks allowed, and ranking 29th in MLB in walks allowed.
  • Kris Bryant injured, missing 40 games already with no timetable to return.
  • Brandon Morrow injured, also with no timetable to return.
  • Anthony Rizzo having the worst April of his career and only within the last month or so hitting as he usually does.
  • Really, only one player performing above his career norms: Javier Baez.

And yet... here we stand, with 44 games remaining in the season and the Cubs are sitting in first place in the N.L. Central, with the best record in the National League.

We are spoiled a bit, I think, by the 2016 regular season, which was as dominant as any Cubs team had been in over 100 years. That created, in some ways, an expectation that once the Cubs got good, as they did in 2015, that things would always be that “easy.”

Baseball doesn’t work that way. Never has, never will. Take, for example, the Yankees during their run of dominance that lasted from 1995 through 2012. There were some years during that run that the Yankees had to come from behind to win their division, or make the postseason. One year in particular stands out to me: 2000. On September 13, 2000, the Yankees were 84-59, nine games ahead in the A.L. East. They finished the regular season 3-15. That’s right, they lost 15 of their last 18 regular-season games, and ended the season with a seven-game losing streak in which they gave up 10 or more runs four times!

Did that matter once the calendar turned to October? Not in the least. The Yankees had the ninth-best record in MLB in 2000 and the worst of all eight postseason teams. They went 11-5 in the postseason and beat the Mets four games to one in the World Series.

The Cardinals had a two-decade run of success. In 2004 and 2005, they won 100+ games both seasons, making the World Series once (losing to the Red Sox) and losing the NLCS the following year.

In 2006, they had a seven-game lead on September 19 with a record of 80-69. They finished the season 3-9, and only an Astros loss on the last day of the season prevented the Cardinals from having to play a rainout-makeup game that might have forced a tiebreaker. Instead, they went into the postseason with the 13th-best record in MLB.

Didn’t matter. Like the 2000 Yankees, they went 11-5 in October and won the World Series four games to one.

This feels like it could be a year like that for the Cubs. At this point in the three previous seasons, the Cubs had already gone on post-All-Star runs. We are 25 games past the 2018 All-Star break and the Cubs are 13-12. First 25 games post-ASB, last three years:

2017: 16-9
2016: 19-6
2015: 17-8

So, the 2018 Cubs have some catching up to do. Even with all the injuries, all the play that isn’t up to the standards they have set over the last three seasons, this team is still talented enough to go on a run like those.

Starting this afternoon would be a good time to do just that. Hang on, everyone. The last 44 games are going to be a heck of a ride.