Obviously, the Chicago Cubs were the feel-good story of 2016, but they aren’t feeling so good right now.
Last year’s World Series champion has been hovering around .500 throughout the first half of the 2017 season and not looking at all like the dominant team that finally ended a 108-year title drought with last year’s exciting seven-game victory over the Cleveland Indians in the Fall Classic.
If they’re going to be looking for sympathy when they arrive at Camden Yards this weekend for their first interleague series here since 2003, they’ve come to the wrong place. The sagging Orioles would happily trade places with them, but it still seems strange hearing their manager and general manager talk about this as if it’s a rebuilding year.
Who rebuilds right after the parade?
“Primarily, there are a lot of guys missing,’’ manager Joe Maddon said recently. “That’s the biggest thing. … We’re a lot of the people who led us to the World Series last year and we’re now building another group of components that are going to take us back there again. It’s an entirely different group. Entirely different. To try to connect the dots between this year and last year is impossible.”
Well, it’s not really a classic from-the-ground-up rebuilding project, but the Cubs lost spark plug Dexter Fowler to the St. Louis Cardinals over the offseason, and this time when he agreed to a free-agent contract with another team, he actually showed up there. They also parted ways with half-season closer Aroldis Chapman, pitcher Jason Hammel and veteran catcher David Ross, but the reason they’ve had to assimilate several younger players into bigger roles is less about player development than plugging holes.
Outfielder Jason Heyward has been on the disabled list twice. The Cubs also had to put Ben Zobrist on the DL during the first half and arrived at the All-Star break with three of their six top starters — John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks and Brett Anderson in rehabilitation mode.
Throw in the fact that aces Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester have underperformed all season and it’s no wonder this year’s Cubs team doesn’t — at the moment — look anything like a defending world champion.
“Every season is different,’’ general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I think this season has been different than we expected when we broke camp. We’re playing with a younger roster and so, yeah, it hasn’t been the same as ’15 and ’16, and we knew that. Maybe this situation, maybe playing young for a while and playing with some injuries will bring guys together.”
Hoyer isn’t leaving it to chance. He just sacrificed a chunk of the club’s future to acquire left-handed starter Jose Quintana from the White Sox for highly regarded prospects Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease plus two other minor league players, so it appears that the Cubs are actually rebuilding and retooling at the same time.
Quintana was the No. 10 vote-getter for last year’s Cy Young Award, so the acquisition is a signal that the front office is still focused on this season.
There was a point a couple of weeks ago when it looked like the frustration might be tearing the clubhouse apart. Catcher Miguel Montero, who split time with Ross last year, was designated for assignment the day after criticizing Arrieta for his inability to hold runners. The move led to speculation that the clubhouse chemistry was cracking.
Team officials, however, characterized the move as a teaching moment for their young players about the importance of sticking together and being accountable. Montero had broken protocol, taking his complaint to the media instead of directly to Arrieta.
“With this young, impressionable group, to me, with this group that is going to be together for a long time, I don’t think you want to foster or condone that kind of message,” Maddon explained.
The clubhouse chemistry, Hoyer insisted at the time, was just fine, though he didn’t expect anyone to be happy about the position that the Cubs have put themselves in.
“There’s no doubt,’’ he said. “When you’re winning, you’re having fun. When you’re having fun, people have a skip in their step coming to the ballpark every day. This season has been a slog for us. We haven’t been able to get hot. Four games over [.500] is our high-water mark and it seems that whenever we get going we hit a glass ceiling and go down. The culture is fine, but the atmosphere every day isn’t quite as jovial. Weeks go by quickly when you’re going well. It hasn’t been that way this season. Every series, every week, every road trip has been just us up-down, up-down. It’s not about culture. It’s just how we’re playing.”
The Cubs still are a very talented team, of course. They have what is perhaps the best corner infield duo in young stars Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, who have quickly developed into team leaders, and the track records of their core starters suggests that the Cubs should be able to turn a corner when Lackey and Hendricks return from the disabled list. If that happens, Hoyer believes, the struggles of the first half could be a developmental plus.
“I think having some adversity is a good thing,’’ he said. “We’ve been sort of muddling at .500. We can’t seem to sort of get moving and get going beyond that. If these guys have to come together through something and deal with a little bit of adversity, I think that’s maybe a positive.”
Arrieta, who will be coming back to Oriole Park for the first time since he was traded to the Cubs along with Pedro Strop for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger in July 2013, said that it’s not really about frustration, from either a personal or team perspective.
“It’s just kind of the story of every year,’’ he said. “It seems like a lot of things can be similar, but most things are different. Games play out in different ways. Teams around the league are different. But the good thing for us is that no team has taken charge in the division. As poorly as we feel we played from time to time, we’re [close]. We’ve still got plenty of time to play.”
That’s true. The Cubs are further out of the National League wild-card race than they are out of first place in the NL Central. They’re well within range of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers if they can pull their rotation back together.
Maddon, who always seems to be in a sunny mood, acknowledges all the reasons the Cubs are where they are, but he has cast the situation as a positive test for himself and what he characterizes as a transitional roster — a team of both the past and future that can still succeed in the present.
“It’s unrealistic to think we’d be 15 games over .500 with this group right now,’’ he said. “They’re finding their way. To me, it’s kind of good. I like where we’re at. You just try to develop them, try to eliminate the mental mistakes. Have them be able to make in-game adjustments. If they were to make a mistake, to be able to throw it away and come back and make the next play. Those are the kind of things I’m focused on right now.
“I think, more than anything, we’re very skillful, very talented, very good. We lack experience right now at the major league level playing some teams that are more experienced. That’s fine, but I’m still confident that we can do this. I’m very confident.”