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The Cubs used to be fun. What happened?

The team’s struggles continued as they were swept by the Angels

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Christopher Morel celebrates a home run on May 23
Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Cubs were swept by the Angels and every loss seemed utterly predictable and inevitable. There was the giving up a four-run lead loss as the bullpen imploded (yet again) on Tuesday, followed by the spectre of a comeback as the Cubs led 2-1 before surrendering that lead the following inning and then just losing the plot all together. Up next, what seemed like the same game the following night, just with the Angels winning by two runs instead of four.

Wednesday night, as I was watching the Cubs lose, this clip from the Reds comeback walkoff win against the Dodgers came across my Twitter feed and energized me in a way I haven’t really felt since Christopher Morel was cranking out home runs at a record pace immediately after his call-up:

And it occurred to me that what is missing in the last month or so of Cubs baseball is fun.

The Reds are not all that much better than the Cubs. They are 2½ games ahead of the Cubs in the standings, and like the Cubs, they are flawed. But with Elly De La Cruz hitting 458 foot bombs and setting records for the fastest sprint speed in MLB in his first two games, while Matt McLain puts up a wRC+ of 149 through his first 104 plate appearances and Will Benson fired up the entire city of Cincinnati with that walkoff bomb against the Dodgers, I have to admit, the fun gap between these two teams feels like a lot more than 2½ games. Frankly, it might as well be a Grand Canyon of fun separating the Cubs and the Reds. So today I just find myself asking, why aren’t the 2023 Cubs fun?

Moments of fun

Don’t get me wrong — there have been some really fun moments for this Cubs team. Nelson Velázquez hitting a grand slam to put the Cubs ahead after they were down 7-0 against the Mariners in April comes to mind. We’d all like to see that again [VIDEO].

There’s also Christopher Morel, who embodies joy, hitting bombs like this [VIDEO].

Marcus Stroman leads MLB in quality starts and seems to always be fired up, like in this outing against his former team, the New York Mets [VIDEO].

Moments of dread

Honestly, Justin Steele’s grittiness as he’s put up a 2.65 ERA across 12 starts belongs on this list too. But it also transitions us to part of the problem here — Steele is currently on the injured list. The Cubs are still reporting that he’ll only miss the minimum amount of time, but it’s a left forearm strain, an ominous sign for any pitcher. And besides, I’m old enough to remember when Cody Bellinger was only going to miss the minimum amount of time when he hit the IL on May 15. Looks like he’ll be out at least a month, as he’s headed for a rehab assignment.

Velázquez cooled off so much after his hot start that he’s currently in Triple-A. Morel’s torrid pace of homers slowed down so much he’s not even starting everyday. Even the Stro Show, which continues to amaze every fifth day or so, feels more like a suspense movie. He has to be practically perfect every start to notch the win, like this complete-game shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays where the Cubs could only be bothered to score one run [VIDEO].

Every game feels crucial — before it is lost

You could feel it throughout the Angels series. It permeated the pre- and post-game shows on Marquee Sports Network where the phrase “must win game” has started to make an appearance — right before the Cubs lose. The Athletic is already wondering how the Cubs could not sell off (again) at the trade deadline if the current state of affairs continues — and frankly, it’s bleak:

Cubs officials don’t really care what you think, or at least they’re not going to factor the optics into their calculus at the trade deadline. Good organizations make the best decisions without worrying about how the fans might react.

That disciplined focus on the long term has been a feature of Jed Hoyer’s baseball operations department since he took over for Theo Epstein after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. If the Cubs remain on a 93-loss pace or the Brewers break away from the rest of the division, it will be an obvious call to trade two guaranteed months of Marcus Stroman starts for potentially six-plus major-league seasons of a good prospect’s career.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. That article goes on to provide a litany of the same old reasons the Cubs don’t want to sell, the talent that could come up to help them (especially the bullpen) later this summer, the upside for the starting rotation, and how much the front office and coaching staff believe in the team they’ve assembled.

But beliefs don’t win baseball games — players making plays do — and anyone watching the Cubs right now can see those plays are not happening. Some nights it’s the offense leaving a dozen men on base, other nights it’s the bullpen imploding. The best position players from Triple-A are already in Chicago, or have already been sent back to Iowa after cooling off. The kids are here — and sitting too much because they’ve struggled early.

The three game series against the Los Angeles Angels started with good natured jokes about Seiya Suzuki recruiting Shohei Ohtani to come play for the Cubs in Chicago.

I’ve got to be honest, after watching the Cubs get unceremoniously swept out of Anaheim in the most uninspired fashion I’ve seen in years, I cannot imagine any player wanting to win in the near-term taking a shot on Jed Hoyer’s Chicago Cubs. Patrick Mooney put it well for The Athletic today:

But there is not the same buzz about the Cubs, no clear progress toward October baseball in Wrigleyville, no obvious hook for Ohtani as he tries to win World Series rings and polish his resume for Cooperstown.

All that doesn’t necessarily mean the Cubs are doomed. It’s easy to dunk on the Cubs at this moment and lose sight of the bigger picture. Team officials have long viewed 2024 as more of a breakthrough year, seeing this season as a chance to compete for a playoff spot if enough things fell into place. This isn’t an organization that’s about to fall off the kind of cliff that Hoyer wanted to avoid when he initiated this rebuild after the 2020 season, amid COVID-19-related budget cuts to baseball operations.

Still, the 2023 team wasn’t supposed to be this bad this fast. The defense that became such an offseason priority has been good but not consistently elite. The bullpen is 6-17 with a 4.58 ERA, ranking 29th out of the 30 major-league clubs with eight saves (or ahead of only the Oakland A’s). The individual success within the rotation means Hoyer could market Marcus Stroman, Hendricks and Drew Smyly — who had another quality start but took a loss against the Angels — ahead of the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

With 100 games left in the 2023 season the Cubs are 26-36 and 10 games below .500 — and yet Fangraphs gives them a 7.1 percent chance to make the postseason in one of the weakest divisions in baseball:

NL Central playoff odds

Ironically, the only team with a worse chance of making the playoffs in the division is the Cincinnati Reds. That fun team, letting the kids play. The team that inspired this article in the first place. David Ross likes to say that winning is fun, and this chart seems to indicate that the Cubs will (eventually) do more winning than the Reds (to the tune of two full games if the projection systems are to be believed) so what gives? Why is this the banner at Reds Reporter right now while there is no joy in Wrigleyville?

Reds Reporter screengrab

Part of it is probably just inevitable during a long baseball season. The Reds are thriving while the Cubs are struggling, at some point in mid-July this script may flip. The Cubs could be riding another Morel hot streak while the Reds get swept by a .500 team — but I think there is something else going on here.

The vibes in Cincinnati are good because the team knows who they are. There were no promises of playoff chances, no big offseason acquisitions. It was always a “let the kids play” year, and the kids are having a blast.

Meanwhile, the Cubs front office promised a chance at competing with a lot of big names added to the team. Last year was supposed to be the nadir of the Cubs not-a-rebuild™ and while some additions were one-year placeholders, they were supposed to be quickly supplanted by the talent the Cubs had waiting in the wings. Just in time for a run at a weak division, or the wild card race.

The reality is that 62 games into last season the Cubs were 23-39 in the middle of an ugly 10-game losing streak that wound up being their longest of the year. I suppose 26-36 while only losing four in a row is an improvement over that performance. But it’s not the type of improvement that brings anyone joy. Fourth place in the division and losing slightly fewer games when fans were told the team would be competitive just isn’t very fun. From where I sit a few blocks away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, it feels like the promises of contention in 2023 were always hollow.