Every season, my brain eventually settles on a season from the Cubs past that this one reminds me of. This year, my brain thinks of 1997. So you don’t have to look it up, that team finished 68-94. That in and of itself isn’t particularly remarkable. For those of you who don’t know the distinction of that team, it started out the season by losing 14 consecutive games. On the upside, they played the rest of the season at 68-80. If they’d played all 162 games at that pace, they’d have won 74 games.
That was the first year my brain left the matrix and started to really see things objectively. I’d kind of always just accepted whatever came from baseball and particularly the Cubs. To my brain, they tried but they just couldn’t quite get everything going in the same direction. Some years they would challenge but would come up short. I’d grown up falling in love for the first time with the 1984 Cubs and then they had the lightning in a bottle 1989 season. So I didn’t have the pain of so many people before me who had never seen the Cubs play in the postseason, including my parents who sparked my love of baseball.
I grew up in the old two-division format with four playoff teams. It was a time when you could have a very good team and never reach the playoffs. So I didn’t quite recognize that baseball wasn’t about chasing that lightning in a bottle season. It was about chasing stability. Player development, coaching, and scouting are where winning organizations are built. But I was years from fully understanding all of that. Like so many, I was passionate but I didn’t look behind the curtain.
So what makes me think of the 1997 team rather than any of the ones that challenged or reached 100 losses? Well, as I mentioned, that 1997 team started the season with 14 consecutive losses. In many of those games they weren’t even competitive. The season opened and the Cubs had a team that wasn’t built to realistically compete and have any chance at winning. I’m sure it had happened before then, but I just didn’t see it. As with any kind of streak, it is amplified if you do it right from the start where there is no camouflage for it. If a player starts the season hitless in his first 20 at bats, it takes on a life of its own. If that same player goes 20 at bats without a hit in late August, plenty of people won’t really even notice it.
Turning to this year’s Cubs team, this feels very much like the same thing. This team wasn’t realistically built to have a chance to win. Oh, they told us they were trying. There was Marcus Stroman and there was Seiya Suzuki. To be fair, any team no matter how good can be derailed by injury. It isn’t lost on me that two guys who had key roles on this team have missed so much time. Or Drew Smyly and Wade Miley, two other pitchers who were part of the rotation who have also missed the majority of the season injured.
To be sure, any team that loses three-fifths of its rotation is going to have problems. But here’s the thing, every team does have injuries. Having the same five starters take 32 starts each and filling in the whole season is the exception. We are a long way removed from the days of just continuing to throw a guy out there every four or five days regardless of how dead his arm is.
Right here in our little chunk of Cubs fandom, we can here the noted baseball strategy of Tim Huwe. Tim has been writing here on Bleed Cubbie Blue for all or most of the time I’ve been a part of this community. Tim likes to focus his energies on the minor leagues and college baseball. He really jams with player development and scouting. But he does have a revolutionary concept. Basically it is that every team needs approximately eight starters available to it and at least twice that many relievers. If you go down the stats page for every team, by the end of the year, they are going to have started 8-10 different pitchers on average and relieved at least twice that many.
But this Cubs team went into the season with basically five guys. I don’t give them back credit for Adbert Alzolay who has been injured long enough that you frankly can’t expect anything. This team had zero depth options. It is fair to give them credit for Keegan Thompson as a sixth option, even if they seemed inclined to keep him in the bullpen even as the rotation was dropping like flies.
The byproduct of this is being seen right now. Caleb Kilian and Matt Swarmer have been thrown into the lion’s den. It’s pretty apparent that neither is ready to be starting in the major leagues. Of course, no one wants to be negative about those guys. Kilian in particular appears to be a legitimate prospect. Some guys get hammered at the start of their career, shake it off and go on to be all that they could be. And for some guys it gets in their head and they never do figure it out. Hopefully, both of these two can learn for this.
It’s hard to see a team that just wasn’t built to even compete. I focused here only on the lack of pitching depth. If I were to go on, I’d point out that the roster also includes two of the least productive hitters over the last few years in Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward. It also employs Jonathan Villar who can charitably be described as a butcher in the field. And not a butcher in left field or some position where he’d only get a few chances each game. No, he’s a butcher who largely plays in the middle infield.
The frustrating thing about all of this is I reach a point like this and the realistic comment I have about this team is that it just isn’t worth the words on a page that consist of a rant about it. If this team continues on its current trajectory it is going to lose more than 100 games. Possibly a lot more. If it gets a bit healthier and catches a few breaks, maybe it can keep that number under 95. So what?
Let’s see if we can find three positives even in another weak performance in a 7-1 loss.
- Patrick Wisdom had two hits and a walk. Among them was a solo homer that accounted for the one run.
- Jason Heyward had two hits. This space is supposed to be positive and so I’m not going to post his season numbers. If you go look at them, don’t say you weren’t warned.
- Mark Leiter Jr. provided some length out of the pen, throwing three innings. He allowed a hit, a walk and a run. But his most important role was eating innings.
And now we turn our attention to the Heroes and Goats.
Game 68, June 21: Pirates 7, Cubs 1 (25-43)
Reminder: Heroes and Goats are determined by WPA scores and are in no way subjective.
- Superhero: Patrick Wisdom (.044). 2-3, HR, BB, RBI, R
- Hero: Christopher Morel (.007). 1-4, 2B, 2K
- Sidekick: Jason Heyward (.001). 2-4, K
- Billy Goat: Matt Swarmer (-.258). 4IP (19 batters), 5H, 2BB, 5R (4ER), 5K, WP (L 1-3)
- Goat: Rafael Ortega (-.059). 0-2
- Kid: Alfonso Rivas (-.048). 0-3, K
WPA Play of the Game: Michael Perez hit a solo homer in the second inning to make it 2-0. (.100)
*Cubs Play of the Game: A double by Christopher Morel in the third and a solo homer by Patrick Wisdom in the fifth. (.043)
Who was the Cubs Player of the Game?
This poll is closed
Someone else (leave your suggestion in the comments)
Rizzo Award Cumulative Standings: (Top 3/Bottom 3)
The award is named for Anthony Rizzo, who finished first in this category three of the first four years it was in existence and four times overall. He also recorded the highest season total ever at +65.5. The point scale is three points for a Superhero down to negative three points for a Billy Goat.
- Nico Hoerner/Christopher Morel +14
- Willson Contreras +13.5
- Matt Swarmer/Daniel Norris -7
- Kyle Hendricks -10
- Jason Heyward -11.5
Up Next: Game three of the four-game set between these two teams. Keegan Thompson (6-2, 3.27) starts for the Cubs. He’ll look to make it two positive starts in a row. It looks like the Pirates will start Jerad Eickhoff, who has been pitching for their Triple-A affiliate this year. The 31-year-old has previously pitched for the Rangers, Phillies and Mets in the major leagues. Dare I say it? This one looks like it could be a win. You can’t lose ’em all, right?