I’ll ask the question in the headline once again here:
“Which team is the real 2023 Chicago Cubs?”
Is it the team that won series from the first-place Rangers and first-place Dodgers (and came within one out of sweeping L.A.) back in April? The same team won series from the contending Mariners and Padres.
Or is it the team that looked awful on its recent road trip to Minnesota, Philadelphia and Houston, winning just two of seven games, blowing multiple leads and getting blown out three times?
The answer is: “Yes.” Both of these teams are the real 2023 Chicago Cubs.
This is a truism as well as the truth: “Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.” I’ll remind you at this juncture that the 2016 Cubs, the best Cubs team in over a century, had a stretch in late June and early July when they went 5-15 and looked like the worst team in baseball. At one point during that stretch they lost nine of 10 and got outscored 74-44.
It happens. Literally all the time. Last year’s Guardians, winners of 92 games and the A.L. Central title, were 19-24 around this time in 2022. The 2021 Braves, winners of the World Series, were three games under .500 as late as August 1. The 2019 World Series champion Nationals, winners of 93 games during the regular season, were 19-31 on this date four years ago. Want another Cubs example? The 2017 Cubs were 43-45 at the All-Star break (and had just been blown out by the Pirates 14-3, then went 49-25 to win the N.L. Central with 92 victories.
Granted and stipulated: This Cubs team has flaws, particularly in the bullpen and its seeming continuous inability to bring runners home from scoring position. But you know what? There are LOTS of teams this year that are flawed and losing. The Padres spent a fortune to supposedly assure themselves of overtaking the Dodgers. San Diego’s current record is just half a game better than the Cubs and they’re eight games out of first place. The White Sox were supposed to be contenders, but have already had a 10-game losing streak and still stand 11 games under .500, 6½ games out of first place in a division nearly as weak as the N.L. Central.
Which brings me to another point: The N.L. Central is a winnable division — by any of the five teams, including the Cubs. All five are flawed, and there are also extra postseason spots to be won. You know, like the one the Phillies pretty much backed into last year with 87 wins. Then they got hot and ran that wave all the way to the World Series.
The Cubs played poorly on the road trip, but they were also missing key players: Nico Hoerner and Cody Bellinger both missed multiple games on the trip. Hoerner is back and Bellinger could be back by Friday. The Cubs continue to (mostly) get good starting pitching, only to see games blown by a bullpen that doesn’t have a closer and doesn’t really have guys filling set roles. It generally helps relievers if they know what’s expected of them, instead of being swapped around through various roles. You can blame David Ross for that, but part of the issue is that Ross just doesn’t have enough good relievers — that, you can blame on Jed Hoyer’s front office.
And then I think again about how it’s just May 23 and 72 percent of the season remains to be played. Joe Maddon used to say that it often takes till Memorial Day for a team to figure out who and what it is. Fortunately, this team appears to have a leader in Dansby Swanson who understands what it takes to win:
“If you want to compete in this league consistently, you just gotta play well, you gotta prepare well and at the end of the day, you have to go out there and take the field every day and give it your best effort no matter if you’re feeling good, bad or indifferent,” Dansby Swanson said. “This game is meant to be played every day and played at a certain level. At the end of the day, we gotta be better. And we will.”
There’s another baseball truism I want to remind you of today: No team is as good as it looks when it’s on a long winning streak, and no team is as bad as it looks when it’s on a long losing streak. That’s certainly true for this year’s Cubs, who might not be as good as they looked when they started the season 11-6, but they’re also not as bad as they’ve looked on their recent 3-10 skid.
The time to start turning it around begins tonight at Wrigley Field.
How many games will the Cubs win on the homestand that begins Tuesday evening?
This poll is closed