From 2010 through 2014, the Chicago Cubs finished fifth.
Fifth in the National League Central, that is. Every year, fifth. Over those same five years, the Cubs lost 464 games. Nobody else in the National League, not even the Rockies or the Marlins, lost more than 450. Just two or three years ago, a diehard Cubs fan told me the franchise was in danger of losing its audience, maybe for good.
Well, now it’s hard to imagine a well-adjusted Cubs fan with anything to complain about. Actually, that’s been a difficult thing to imagine since … oh, maybe since last April 17, when Kris Bryant finally got into the lineup. Or maybe it wasn’t until Aug. 15, when the Cubs won their 15th game in 16 tries, giving them a semi-comfortable lead over the Giants in the wild-card standings.
Of course, they would only extend that lead and actually finished just three games out of first place. Then came the Wild Card Game shutout against the Pirates and the dismissal of the first-place Cardinals in the Division Series.
By then, only a truly poorly adjusted Cubs fan would have been complaining. But then came the Mets’ sweep in the NLCS, and someone might have detected a weakness in those four games. Or pointed out that the Cubs’ run differential during the regular season wasn’t nearly as good as their record. Or worried about a relatively unproductive outfield, especially with Dexter Fowler testing free-agent waters. Or wondered, more recently, who would play second base, what with Javier Baez struggling in the majors and Starlin Castro getting traded to the Yankees.
Then with just a few swipes of the pen, you gotta be out of your mind to worry over-much about the Chicago Cubs, as the latest projections show them as the best team in the major leagues.
About that run differential last season? Run differential tells only some of the story, and Baseball Prospectus’s third-order wins actually showed the Cubs as the second-best team in the National League and the best in their division.
AFTER that, they’ve now replaced Dan Haren, Travis Wood and Tsuyoshi Wada in the rotation with John Lackey.
AFTER that, they’ve replaced Starlin Castro at second base with Ben Zobrist.
And AFTER that, they’ve replaced Dexter Fowler in center field with Jason Heyward.
All three of these moves are net positives.
The money? It’s $32 million for two years of Lackey and $56 million for four years of Zobrist and however many millions (with two player opt-outs) for however many years of Heyward. (Our Ken Rosenthal reports it’s eight years and $184 million.)
It’s a lot of money and the Cubs can afford it, thanks in part to their discipline — Edwin Jackson notwithstanding — through those lean years when they were the worst team in the league.
Was it worth it? Well, I suppose you should ask some Cubs fans. Generally speaking, though, rebuilding’s probably worth it unless a) it doesn’t actually work, or b) you die before it works. There are some long-suffering Cubs fans who literally aren’t still around for these salad days. But when you’re running a baseball team, you basically have to assume that everyone (except the owner) will live forever. Or at least long enough to enjoy the fruits of your work, however long they take to ripen.
Theo Epstein’s fruits have ripened. It’s foolish to assume that the Cubs will win a World Series anytime soon, for the simple reason that baseball doesn’t work that way. Just one year ago, these Cubs were those Nationals, and those Nationals were 2015’s most disappointing team. Even with the best player in the majors. But with five young stars in the lineup and a five-headed rotation monster, betting against the Cubs in 2016 is a great way to throw away your money.