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Ranking the worst teams in Cubs history: Will the 2021 club join them?

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This isn’t pretty, but... here we are.

Ivan De Jesus dives back safely to first base against the Expos, September 11, 1981
Set Number: X26016 TK1 R7 F5

This idea came to me during the 12-game losing streak: How does the team the Cubs are currently putting on the field stack up next to the worst teams in franchise history?

Now that the Cubs are riding a baby winning streak of two games, maybe it’s less possible for this year’s team to join this group. However, since I already did all this research, I thought I’d present it to you anyway.

There is, of course, a caveat to all this. The 2021 Cubs, had the group in place before the selloff stayed intact, were probably around a .500 club, similar to the 2005 or 2009 teams that followed some postseason appearances. The group now? Since the trade deadline they’re 4-15 and in order to avoid 100 losses they’d have to go 9-30 and there’s certainly no guarantee of that.

My methodology of choosing the worst Cubs teams ever: I went and looked at all of the Cubs teams that finished with a winning percentage under .400. There are nine of them. This year’s team would have to go 11-28 (finishing at 65-97) to avoid that, and again, that might be too much to ask.

Here is my ranking of the nine previous sub-.400 Cubs teams, from the “best” of the bunch to the worst.

1966: 59-103

Run differential: -165
bWAR: 17.4
Longest losing streak: 6 (three times)
Worst month: July, 9-22
Most games over .500: Never

You know a lot about this team, of course. It was Leo Durocher’s first year, before which he pronounced confidently, “This is not an eighth-place team.” He was right, they finished 10th. But there were five future Hall of Famers on this club: Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo and Billy Williams, plus what was left of Robin Roberts’ career.

This team might have set an unbreakable franchise record for losses. On July 31 they were 32-71, a .311 winning percentage which would equate to a 50-112 record in a full season. But they went 27-32 the rest of the way and Jenkins would get into the rotation for good in late August, posting a 2.13 ERA and two complete games in his final nine starts, perhaps presaging the Cubs’ breakout 1967 season.

1962: 59-103

Run differential: -195
bWAR: 20.5
Longest losing streak: 10
Worst month: April, 4-16
Most games over .500: Never

This was also a talented team, with four future Hall of Famers (Banks, Santo, Williams and Lou Brock). But the College of Coaches ruined any continuity, and that “college” was abandoned the next year.

Ken Hubbs was NL Rookie of the Year, and though he struggled at the plate in 1963, I can’t help wondering what might have happened if he hadn’t died in a plane crash the next spring, at only 22 years old.

The team’s pitching was atrocious, allowing 827 runs. Only the expansion Mets were worse, and only Bob Buhl and Cal Koonce were even “okay” as starters.

The talent showed the following year, when the Cubs were in the pennant race briefly in June and July and finished over .500 at 82-80, their only winning season between 1947 and 1966.

1960: 60-94

Run differential: -142
bWAR: 16.7
Longest losing streak: 9
Worst month: July, 8-21
Most games over .500: 1, with a 2-1 record

This was the year with the famous radio-booth-to-manager transition, with Lou Boudreau (radio) and Charlie Grimm (manager) swapping positions. It worked out poorly; Boudreau went back to radio the following year when the College of Coaches was created.

Banks provided 7.9 bWAR of the 16.7 noted above, the rest of the team was pathetically bad, finishing just one game ahead of the last-place Phillies. The 94 losses tied a franchise record that had been set only four years earlier.

A couple of notable things happened this season: Don Cardwell’s no-hitter May 15, and the MLB debut of Ron Santo. He finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in only 95 games.

1956: 60-94

Run differential: -111
bWAR: 23.1
Longest losing streak: 7 (twice)
Worst month: August, 10-22
Most games over .500: 1, last on April 22, 3-2

There’s the team that established a franchise mark for losses, 94, breaking the record of 93 that had been set in 1949. They did have a winning record at Wrigley Field, 39-38, but all that meant is that they were awful on the road, 21-56.

Again, Banks provided a significant portion of the team’s bWAR, 5.3. Pitcher Bob Rush, 13-10 with a 3.16 ERA, was second with 3.8. Rush’s reward was to be traded to the Braves two years later, where he appeared in the World Series.

This team had several other pitchers who went on to have good years elsewhere: Sam Jones, Jim Brosnan and Moe Drabowsky. The latter two played in the World Series.

1949: 61-93

Run differential: -177
bWAR: 19.9
Longest losing streak: 8
Worst month: July 10-20
Most games over .500: 1, on April 22, 3-2

Ah, yes, another team record for losses. The previous club record for defeats was 90, set the previous year, the demolition of the 1945 World Series team was complete.

Hank Sauer, who had been acquired from the Reds at the then-trading deadline of June 15 along with Frank Baumholtz for Peanuts Lowrey and Harry Walker, had a fantastic debut season for the Cubs: .291/.363/.571 with 27 home runs in only 93 games.

The Cubs finished last in the eight-team NL for the second straight year, scoring the fewest runs (593) and allowing the most (770).

1901: 53-86

Run differential: -112
bWAR: 16.8
Longest losing streak: 8
Worst month: June, 7-20
Most games over .500: 1, last on April 19

I don’t know much about this team other than what’s on baseball-reference. This team did have future Hall of Famer Rube Waddell, and you might wonder why they let him go. They didn’t; as his bb-ref page notes, he “jumped” leagues after 1901, then jumped again a year later, when you could still do that. Connie Mack was the only manager who could figure the enigmatic Waddell out and get him to perform well on a regular basis. More on Waddell in his SABR bio.

Ownership quickly rebuilt the team and by 1903 they were contenders, leading to four pennants and two World Series titles in five years from 1906-10.

2012: 61-101

Run differential: -146
bWAR: 16.6
Longest losing streak: 12
Worst month: August, 8-21
Most games over .500: Never

There are some similarities between now and this club, the first of Theo Epstein’s rebuild, though the parallels are not exact.

The team had a selloff at and around the deadline July 31, sending Ryan Dempster, Geovany Soto, Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson away. Those deals did bear fruit for the 2016 World Series team, as they got Kyle Hendricks for Dempster and Arodys Vizcaino in the Maholm deal. Vizcaino was eventually traded for Tommy La Stella.

The team wasn’t horrific at the deadline — 43-59 — but that 8-21 August and 10-21 combined September/October gave them a NL-worst 18-42 post-deadline record and led to guys like Jason Berken and Justin Germano starting games.

This team also had a franchise-record 58 road losses.

1980: 64-98

Run differential: -114
bWAR: 22.7
Longest losing streak: 7
Worst month: August, 11-20
Most games over .500: 5, 11-6, tied for first May 3

This was the end of a run of sort-of contention that started in 1977. The team started out well, 11-6, and it looked like they might contend for a bit again.

Then the wheels fell off. They went a NL-worst 53-92 (.366) the rest of the way, and Dave Kingman, who had a 48-HR season in 1979, missed half the year with injuries.

The pitching allowed a league-worst 728 runs, but only 2.2 of that 22.7 bWAR came from the hitters. Ivan de Jesus stole 44 bases — the most by a Cub since Frank Chance stole 57 in 1906 (!) — but it didn’t help them score runs, as they finished ninth in the 12-team NL with 614.

New manager Preston Gomez lasted only 90 games before he was fired and replaced by Joe Amalfitano. And that leads us to...

1981: 38-65

Run differential: -113
bWAR: 7.0
Longest losing streak: 12
Worst month: May, 8-20
Most games over. 500: Never

As is the case for everything connected with 1981, this team gets an asterisk. I am convinced they would have obliterated the franchise record for losses if not for the strike. They were 1-13, 4-19, 5-27 and 10-36 before they won five of six just before the strike to finish the “first half” 15-37. Amalfitano managed this sad-sack bunch, and including an interim stint managing in 1979 after Herman Franks quit in disgust with a week to go in the season, had a 66-116 record managing the Cubs. Incidentally, the ‘80 and ‘81 seasons are proof that Franks was an excellent manager. Those teams had similar talent to the 1977-78-79 Cubs that Franks had in contention most of those three years. Franks got more out of those three modestly-talented teams than anyone else probably could have.

Back to ‘81: The Cubs signed what was left of former star Bobby Bonds in early June. I will never forget Jack Brickhouse’s excited voice when he told of the signing and that he would start that night’s game against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. That debut didn’t even last one inning, as he hurt his wrist diving for a ball in the bottom of the first. He didn’t miss many actual games due to the strike, as he was ready to go when the season resumed, but that was just the epitome of the 1981 Cubs season.

The Cubs played well enough after the strike to be only three games out of first place in the “second half” standings with 10 games to go. Another indelible memory: On September 24, the Cubs had just defeated the Mets 10-9 to get to that three games out position at 20-21 in the second half. On the radio postgame show Lou Boudreau ripped Cubs fans because attendance was only 2,555 that late September day. From Bob Logan in the Tribune:

“There should be at least 10- or 15,000 people here,” Boudreau said. “The fans have been crying for a championship, and the Cubs have a chance to give them one. I don’t understand why the crowds have been so small this week.

“If anyone had told them the Cubs would be three games out of first place on Sept. 24, they would all be out here. Now everybody in the division is playing each other, so all the games mean something. Getting a few more people in the park for the weekend series with Philadelphia would help the Cubs play better, I’m sure.”

That was, of course, laughable. The Cubs were awful, schools were back in session, the strike had turned many fans off and with no night games, attendance was usually low late in the season, particularly after so many bad Septembers.

What a joke it would have been if a team more than 20 games under .500 for the full season had made Bowie Kuhn’s playoffs. The Cubs lost seven of those last 10, so baseball was spared that embarrassment.

What would the 1981 Cubs actually have done in a full season? Impossible to say, of course, but they did play better in that “second half,” 23-28. So, splitting the difference in winning percentage between the first (.288) and second (.451) halves, in the 59 games not played (including three ties that would have been made up), I estimate they’d have gone 22-37 with a -60 run differential, for a season record of 60-102 with a run differential of -173, just missing tying the franchise record.

And that team had three building blocks for the 1984 postseason team: Lee Smith, Jody Davis and Leon Durham.

What does this all mean for the 2021 Cubs?

As noted above, this year’s club is really two different teams. If the team on the field now had played 162 games — well, that’s probably a 110-loss club. But these guys inherited a 50-54 record and though they are just 4-15 since the trade deadline, given the fact that they have played better the last couple of days and have quite a few home games remaining against equally bad teams (a total of 12, vs. the Royals, Rockies, Pirates and Twins, and they also play the Pirates and Twins on the road), I suspect they can post a record somewhere around 14-25 and finish 68-94, better than the records I noted at the top of this post.

So that’s what I’m calling for: 94 total losses, bad, but not the worst in franchise history.

Poll

How many losses will the 2021 Cubs finish with?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Fewer than 90
    (42 votes)
  • 30%
    90-94
    (189 votes)
  • 47%
    95-99
    (296 votes)
  • 15%
    100 or more
    (99 votes)
626 votes total Vote Now