“I think we have a team right now that can make the playoffs.”
– Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, speaking on February 19, 2014 during the Cubs Spring State of the Cubs address to the media
Let’s hope that the Cubs owner said that with a wink and a smirk.
Because if he was serious, he was living on a lonely planet. Really, I checked. No other rational thinking human thought the Cubs could make the playoffs this year.
At ESPN, they asked 44 baseball experts before the start of the season which teams they thought would make the playoffs. Not one mentioned the Cubs. See for yourself. Their projections are recorded online at http://espn.go.com/mlb/preview14/story/_/id/10638313/espn-expert-team-predictions-2014-baseball-season
Not one member of the staff at Baseball Prospectus picked the Cubs to make the playoffs this year, either. In fact, all but three of those 40 baseball prognosticators projected the Cubs would finish in last place in the National League Central. (See their projections here http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=23044). That is, of course, exactly where the Cubs placed. Dead last. Oh, the three members of the BP staff who didn’t pick the Cubs to end the season at the bottom of the division? They forecast them to finish second to last, ahead of the Brewers.
I say let’s hope that Ricketts made that statement before the start of the season with a wink and a smirk because if he really believed it, well, then the Cubs have a real problem. Not even the most optimistic of Cubs fans could have looked at the Cubs opening day lineup – a lineup that included Darwin Barney at second base, Nate Schierholtz in right field, Mike Olt at third base, and Junior Lake at left field – and realistically believed that the Cubs could seriously compete at the major league level.
If you’re in charge of the Cubs and you look at that lineup and see the Cubs playing in October, you are one of three things. You are either high, or you are delusional, or you are very dumb. None of those choices, by the way, are good ones if you are trying to lead a team to a place it has not been since Ford rolled out the Model T.
The good news for long-suffering Cubs fans is that Ricketts isn’t the team’s talent evaluator or the one charged with setting the ship on the right course. He hired Theo Epstein for that job, and the kid from Boston seems to have a good head on his shoulders. Look at the difference between what Ricketts said about the Cubs before the 2014 season and what Epstein said about them after the season.
Looking ahead to 2015, Epstein seemed to acknowledge that the Cubs aren’t yet ready to go all-in for the World Series, but also raised the bar. “Overall, for the organization, I think 2015 will be a little bit different than the previous three seasons in that we now think we have the talent to compete,” Epstein said. “And anytime you have enough talent to compete you want to set your sights high.
“We proved we can be very competitive within this division and when you have a chance to compete you should set your sights high and that means our goal is the NL Central title next year.”
Note the fine distinction there. Epstein didn’t actually predict that the Cubs would win their division. He didn’t even say that the team as it currently exists is ready to challenge for the title. He only said that the team’s goal is to be competitive next year.
You see, Epstein can’t do it alone. He needs a little luck. At least some of his much-hyped prospects has to show that they can really play ball at the major league level. But more than that, he needs something he hasn’t had these last three years: money.
Here’s the deal: Epstein can’t do it all from within and he can’t do it all on the cheap. They don’t have the level of pitching talent in their system to put up a starting rotation next year that can beat the St. Louis Cardinals or even the Pittsburg Pirates. While Jake Arrieta emerged this year as a top-tier starter and rookie Kyle Hendricks showed strong potential, you can’t go into next season and think that you are ready to seriously make a run with the bottom half of your rotation featuring Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Felix Doubront and Jacob Turner.
That’s the problem. Epstein doesn’t control the purse strings; Ricketts does. He needs to convince Ricketts that what we have now isn’t good enough. They need a proven top-of-rotation starter, someone like John Lester or James Shields. They also need a veteran to lead all the kids. Someone like catcher Russell Martin, who would be able to coach all these young pitchers and show all the young stud hitters that home runs aren’t everything.
In other words, the Cubs need to finally start spending money again – something that the Ricketts family hasn’t shown much willingness to do. The good news for the Cubs is they were above .500 for most of the second half of 2014, going 31-28 since July 28. And that’s when they were fielding the youngest team in the league. It gives the organization hope moving forward.
But the Cubs can’t rely solely on hope. That hasn’t been enough for the last 106 years, and it won’t be enough for next year, either. They need luck. And they need to break open the piggybank.
If Epstein gets what he needs from Ricketts, then maybe the Cubs owner won’t look like such a fool again when he gives his 2015 State of the Cubs address.