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A tale of 5 teams that could mean something for this year’s Cubs

The Cubs are off to a bad start. Well... so were these teams that eventually did quite well.

Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Before you read this, a caveat: Past performance does not guarantee future results.

The 2021 Chicago Cubs stand at 11-14 with one game left in April. The starting rotation is in tatters, the offense is feast-or-famine and the bullpen has been shaky.

I remain convinced that this team has too much talent to play like this for an entire season. These players, almost all of them, have long track records of success. Further, it’s not like most of them are over-the-hill. With the exceptions of Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward and Jake Arrieta, all the key performers on this team are 30 or younger.

So what I’m going to tell you here, I believe, will show you that a bad start by a good team is actually fairly common. If the Cubs had started well and then had an 11-14 stretch in, say, mid-June, it wouldn’t have received the attention that this one has. It’s because these are the first 25 games that this seems magnified. I remind you that the 2016 World Series champion Cubs, winners of 103 games, the most by the franchise in 106 years, had a 5-15 stretch in late June and early July in which they were outscored 123-90. If that team had started that way? Wow, people would have been asking for Joe Maddon to be fired.

Here are five recent teams that had starts as bad or worse than the 2021 Cubs, some of them for much longer into the season. All of them got to the World Series and two of them won it.

2005 Astros

This one, I remember well. The Astros came to Wrigley Field in late May having lost 15 of 19. The Cubs took the first two games of the series and Houston was 15-30, dead last in the NL Central, 14 games out of first place.

I should remind you that Cubs team was pretty mediocre and wound up 79-83.

Meanwhile, the Astros started playing better, though they did not go over .500 to stay until July 19, when they swept a doubleheader from the Pirates.

From the 15-30 start, Houston went 74-43, finishing 89-73 and getting the then-single NL wild card spot. They rode that hot streak all the way into the World Series, where they were swept by the White Sox.

2007 Rockies

This one came from even more out of nowhere. The Rockies had posted six straight losing seasons coming into 2007, and on May 21 they were 18-27, a season-high nine games under .500, already seven games out of first place.

They finally made it over .500 on July 7 at 44-43 with a win over the Phillies, and it took a 13-1 run in September for them to tie the Padres for the wild-card spot. They won a tiebreaker game, though the Padres are still waiting for Matt Holliday to touch the plate.

They then swept the Phillies in a division series and the Diamondbacks in the NLCS before being swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.

2012 Giants

The Giants won the World Series in 2010, but missed the playoffs entirely in 2011. 2012 started out like another “miss the playoffs” season, with the team 15-17 on May 11 and already six games out of first place.

They went 79-51 after that, won the NL West with a 94-68 record and went on to a World Series win, a sweep of the Tigers.

2018 Dodgers

Coming off a 104-win season and a World Series appearance, the Dodgers started 2018 with a big “clunk.”

A loss to the Marlins on May 16 put them 10 games under .500 at 16-26 and 8½ games out of first place. As late as September 11 they were still 1½ games out of the top spot in the NL West with 16 remaining. They went 13-3 to tie the Rockies for the division title, won the tiebreaker game (thus sending Colorado to the wild-card game where they beat the Cubs).

L.A. then beat the Braves and Brewers to get to the World Series, where the 108-win Red Sox defeated them.

2019 Nationals

This one, you probably remember well. The Cubs played them in mid-May in DC and took two of three, leaving the Nats at 19-27. Washington followed that by being swept in a four-game series by the Mets. At 19-31, there were calls for manager Dave Martinez to be fired. From one of the most respected baseball columnists ever, Thomas Boswell at the Washington Post:

But with the Nats nine games behind the Phillies, if the double whammy of lame fundamentals and a poor (and poorly managed) bullpen keeps dogging the Nats, then I will understand if the team loses patience and decides that someone — maybe anyone — would be a better match for this team than Dave Martinez. He’s a fine role model for many. Just not, it seems, a very good big league manager.

And this one from David Schoenfield at

If the Nationals don’t turn it around soon, don’t be surprised if he’s the first manager fired in 2019.

Mike Rizzo hired Martinez to replace Baker because Baker couldn’t get the team past the first round of the playoffs (and to get a younger manager more in tune with the changing analytics of the modern game). But can Martinez even get the Nationals to the playoffs?

You know the answer to Schoenfield’s question. They went 74-38 after that horrid start, beat the Brewers in the wild-card game, won a division series over the Dodgers, swept the Cardinals in the NLCS and won a seven-game World Series against the Astros, with the road team winning all seven games. Turned out Dave Martinez was exactly the right manager for that bunch. Not only did he not get fired, he received a three-year contract extension late last year.

So it happens. Fairly often, in fact. If you want a Cubs-centric reminder, there’s a recent Cubs team that went from nine games under .500 in early June to a division title, though they got swept out of the postseason — that’s the 2007 Cubs, 22-31 under Lou Piniella on June 2. They went 63-46 the rest of the way and won a weak NL Central with an 85-77 mark. Heck, the 2017 Cubs were under .500 at the All-Star break (43-45) and close to a fire sale. They won 92 games and the division title.

Back to the 2021 Chicago Cubs. I will simply repeat what I wrote above:

I remain convinced that this team has too much talent to play like this for an entire season. These players, almost all of them, have long track records of success. Further, it’s not like most of them are over-the-hill. With the exceptions of Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward and Jake Arrieta, all the key performers on this team are 30 or younger.

As it was in 2007, the NL Central appears weak. Could 85 wins take it? Maybe. Could this Cubs team win 85 games? Sure. 90? Maybe. Am I saying the 2021 Cubs are a World Series team? No, not necessarily, but this team is certainly talented enough to make the postseason.

My point: This season is far from over. There have already been teams who have started poorly this year who have turned things around. The Athletics started 0-6, then won 13 in a row. They’re currently in first place at 16-10. The Diamondbacks were 5-10, but have gone 8-2 since.

So hang in there. It’s an old baseball saying: “It’s early.”

But in fact, that is exactly where we are.