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Reflections on the cusp of the 2019 Cubs season

No matter what happens this year, it will be a watershed season in Cubs history.

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Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s so easy for those of us who follow baseball and the Cubs closely to get caught up in minutiae — who’s going to be the 25th man on the roster, how the Cubs will handle a tough late-season schedule, whether Joe Maddon will manage the team beyond 2019 — that I think sometimes we forget that baseball runs in cycles. Always has, always will. Teams have periods where they lay fallow for years (or decades, in the Cubs’ case), eras where they dominate.

What am I getting at here? This was supposed to be the Golden Age of Cubs baseball, once they returned to postseason play in 2015 and won the World Series in 2016. And yet, a NLCS loss in 2017 and the stunning wild-card game defeat in 2018 have some thinking that this Golden Age might be tarnished.

Let me remind you of a cycle that the Cubs’ current management team went through when they were in Boston, chronicled in an interview Jon Greenberg did with Jed Hoyer in The Athletic:

This winter it was really helpful for both of us to have that those shared experiences in Boston. Listen, 2006 in Boston was miserable. It was a really bad end of the season and we fell short. We didn’t do much at the deadline, we fell short, we had tons of injuries in September. We won 86 games, missed the playoffs. We ended up being active that offseason and winning the World Series, but that feeling after ’06 was very similar to that feeling after last year.

That’s pretty much where we are right now, isn’t it? The Red Sox broke their drought in 2004, lost a division series in 2005 and then missed the playoffs in 2006. The latter isn’t precisely what happened to the 2018 Cubs, but the feeling is certainly quite similar, as Hoyer stated.

The difference, of course, is that the Red Sox were “active” in the 2006-07 offseason. Their biggest move was signing Daisuke Matsuzaka, and while Matsuzaka’s entire big-league career was mostly a failure, he had a good year in 2007 (4.1 bWAR) and was a key contributor in Boston’s run to a World Series title that year, a sweep of the Rockies.

This is a reminder, again, that it’s very, very hard to repeat as World Series champions. No one has done it in 18 years, now, since the Yankees’ back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000. There are various reasons for that, but these days it’s more likely that a team will use its “cycle” to win multiple titles over a short period, as the Giants did from 2010-14 (three championships) or even the Red Sox, who now have four World Series titles over the last 15 seasons.

I think if you had asked any Cubs fan, when Theo Epstein took over the club after the 2011 season, if it would be okay if the Cubs won four World Series over the years 2012-26, the answer would have been an emphatic “Hell yes!”

I’m still at “Hell yes” on that. There will be eight baseball seasons completed between now and 2026. If the Cubs can win three World Series in that period, to add to the 2016 title, I think we’d all be fine with that.

In another article in The Athletic (and really, you should subscribe, and they didn’t pay me to tell you that), Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma detail the massive offseason effort by everyone in the organization to change the vibe from the bad ending to the 2018 season. There was a lot of soul-searching, a lot of discussion between management and players, and the results of those discussions were these five major changes in the way the 2019 season will be approached:

Holding mandatory batting practice four or five times a week.

Releasing the lineups on a series-by-series basis.

Circling 10 or so trap games and challenging the group to win all of them.

Spending more time in the dugout during games and being ready when the national anthem is sung.

Limiting the amount of alcohol and fast food consumed in the clubhouse and on charter flights.

These were apparently identified as issues by players and management and my takeaway from all these is that while Joe Maddon’s management style had, up to now, been to pretty much let players police themselves as long as they got their work done, it seems that Theo & Co. want Joe to be more “hands-on” and to have more accountability from everyone. The entire article is a must-read.

As you know, this wasn’t the best offseason the Cubs have ever had, from the Addison Russell situation to the Joe Ricketts email controversy to the fact that the most significant addition to the Cubs’ roster for 2019 was Daniel Descalso (plus, I suppose, the exercising of the option on Cole Hamels’ contract). Many fans had a “Do something, anything!” mantra for much of the offseason.

My take? The Cubs’ “free agent signings” amount to getting a healthy Kris Bryant and a healthy Yu Darvish back from injuries that ruined the 2018 season for both those star players. Bryant was off to a great start in 2018, and then hurt his shoulder diving for a ball in Cincinnati in June. He tried to play through it for 10 games in July, performed poorly, then sat out until September. From the initial injury date through the end of the season, Bryant hit .256/.356/.416 (32-for-125) with only four home runs in 36 games. Obviously that’s not the KB we had known from 2015-17, but he appears to be 100 percent healthy and ready to go this year.

So, too, does Darvish, who has had a solid spring (four starts, 2.25 ERA, 14 strikeouts in 12 innings) despite a bit of a scare when he left a game with a blister. Darvish, too, appears ready to go, and has taken to joking around with media in English:

To me, that’s a real sign that he appears more comfortable as a Cub, more a part of the team, and also ready to go.

The tweet above mentions Pedro Strop, whose hamstring injury last September might have cost the Cubs the game they needed to win the N.L. Central. (Not that specific game, but perhaps Pedro would have helped them win one game that they didn’t after he went down.) Strop, after a minor hamstring setback this spring (the other hamstring from the one he hurt last year), also appears ready to go.

The Cubs will not have an easy road this year. Almost all the other teams in the N.L. Central have improved themselves, though I don’t expect the Brewers to have the “perfect storm” kind of season they had in 2018. The Cardinals might be tougher, with nemesis Paul Goldschmidt now facing the Cubs 19 times a year instead of six or seven. The Reds have improved their starting rotation, though if they don’t get off to a good start, they might be very active at the trading deadline. The Pirates? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

When the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, they got off to a fantastic start, going 8-1, 17-5, 25-6 and 47-20 before an inexplicable 5-15 stretch brought them back to the pack... sort of. After the first week of May they never led the division by fewer than six games and won it by 17½.

That, too, was a “perfect storm” that isn’t likely to be repeated, though Hoyer said in the Greenberg interview:

It’s important we get off to a good start. I’ll say that. There are seasons where I feel like OK, let’s get into the season and see how things go. Sort of get conditioned to the season and then you take off. I feel like this is a year that I’ll be disappointed if we don’t kind of hit the ground running. I think it’s important for this division and I think it’s important for the psyche of this group after last season. Getting off to a good start is something that I think is really important.

I’m with Jed here. The Cubs have had rough starts in some of the last couple of seasons, including being under .500 at the All-Star break in 2017. I don’t think they can afford that this year.

And this team seems ready for that challenge. In 2015, 2016 and 2017 the Cubs had great runs in August and September that sealed their postseason positions. I think they thought last summer, “Oh, we’ll just do that again this year.” But it didn’t happen, instead the Brewers were the team that had the great September run and beat out the Cubs, even though the Cubs had a decent September. It appears the Cubs have learned from that and understand that their sense of urgency has to last all year, they can’t just flip a switch and turn it on.

And with that, I’m ready for this baseball season to begin. As always, the beginning of baseball brings with it a sense of renewal and hope, and I personally am filled with hope and expectation that the Cubs are in fact in a Golden Age for the team. It’s almost impossible to win the World Series every year, but this team seems primed to do it again. If they do, then we’ll really be seeing one of the most dominant eras in team history. If not... we’ll likely see a very different Cubs team on the field in 2020.