What a funny roller coaster the last week has have been for Chicago Cubs fans. A sweep by the Cardinals, followed by an offensive blowout of the Marlins, followed by a slow come-from-behind win with every emotion built in, followed by another blowout.
And the constant throughout has been fans’ emotions being jumpier than a Calaveras County croaker. The ALL CAPS on Twitter. Venting blog posts later taken down. And a few Cubs podcasts starting with almost U.S. Surgeon General-style warnings about how negative the ensuing comments would be.
People, people, you are killing yourselves here. Yes, it’s reasonable to expect a playoff appearance from this team, but don’t expect playoff-style greatness every game or week. Also remember that in Epstein’s 10 Red Sox seasons, they averaged 93 wins, won two World Series, but also missed four post-seasons.
Just another way of saying winning championships ain’t easy. As fans, we control nothing but our expectations. If we calibrate these poorly, the ride only gets more topsy-turvy. To help you survive, here are some reality checks to keep this Cubs team in perspective without dousing enthusiasm.
1) The Cubs aren’t a “super team”
Don’t buy that silly national media narrative about “super teams.” There’s no such thing in baseball right now. No current team compares to the 1970’s Oakland A’s, the Big Red Machine, or even the Joe Torre-led Yankees.
The Cubs are a really good team in an era of great parity among playoff teams and then a big drop-off after that. What does Theo Epstein regularly say? “Get into the playoffs, and anything can happen.” If that quote doesn’t scream random parity, nothing does.
2) 2016 didn’t foreshadow a dynasty
What an exciting World Series, but the Cubs did win by the skin of their teeth. They also followed a standard title-winning formula. Get big years from your proven stars (Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Aroldis Chapman); avoid key injuries; enjoy career years from secondary players (Kyle Hendricks, Dexter Fowler, Addison Russell); and get some surprise playoff performances from role players (Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Mike Montgomery).
Can the Cubs sustain success and win at least two titles in four seasons like Epstein’s Red Sox? Time will tell. But remember, Torre’s Yankees won their first title in 1996 with a modest 92-win season. No one really knew it was a dynasty in the making until that 114-win team won the 1998 title. So slow that roll and wait until one more title to talk anything more.
3) This Cubs lineup is young
The Cubs started the season with the third youngest collection of hitters in the majors behind the Phillies and White Sox. With youth comes inconsistency. This was proven in the first half last year, and again in the playoffs. And we’re seeing it again to start this year.
Fact is from 2016 to 2017 the Cubs lost three valuable veterans (Fowler, Ross and Chapman) and replaced only one (Wade Davis for Chapman). Then this year, it got even younger, effectively replacing Miguel Montero and John Jay on the Opening Day roster with Victor Caratini and Ian Happ.
So the key question is can a lineup this young – even with all of its talent and playoff experience – be expected to win a title? More on this below.
4) The starting rotation should get better, the bullpen worse.
Uneven early starts by every rotation arm aside, the regular season remains all about preserving Lester, Hendricks, Quintana and Darvish for playoff starts. But don’t delude yourselves. On paper, the rotation has a bunch of No. 2 pitchers, and at least one must step up at playoff time to match the other teams’ No. 1. Otherwise, the fight will be as uphill as 2017.
Bullpen-wise, high plaudits so far, but high first-half appearance-rates like this inevitably augur second-half exhaustion. And the “Iowa Shuttle” is already going full throttle. To counter this in 2016, the Cubs traded for fresher relief arms in Chapman and Montgomery. In 2017, they paced Wade Davis and crapped out rolling the dice on Justin Wilson.
This year, the goal is pace Morrow and hope Carl Edwards Jr. finally joins the dependable late-inning ranks of Morrow and Steve Cishek. Plus, maybe – just maybe – a mended Drew Smyly and/or healthy late-season call-up of Adbert Alzolay can provide surprise bullpen reinforcements that Maddon can trust with a playoff lead. We’ll see.
5) Expect a major lineup change
This isn’t guaranteed, but again this is about setting shock-absorbing expectations. Many fans can’t bear the idea of trading any young Cubs bats, but reality is a) last postseason exposed the lineup’s high swing-and-miss rate as a major Achilles’ Heel, and b) few trade chips remain in the minors.
As outlined in my piece analyzing the pros and cons of acquiring Manny Machado, this young lineup would most benefit from one or two experienced bats with proven success against dominant power arms. But no one gets something good without giving up something good, especially if the Cubs would prefer a quality reliever tossed in as well.
Does that mean Kyle Schwarber, who always will have more value to an AL team? Or one of the starting middle infielders? Or can the front office pull a rabbit out of the hat with their version of a J.D. Martinez trade that cost the Diamondbacks no advanced top prospects last year?
We’ll see. But by expecting some jostling and change, you can help settle your stomach and enjoy the season’s long roller coaster far better.