The Cubs, Progress and “The Plan”

On March 5, 2014, Chicago Tribune reporter Fred Mitchell detailed an interview on 87.7 FM featuring Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts. And in early March, we may have scoffed at the following quote:

“If you want to win 83 games for 10 years in a row …there’s a way to go about that. And I imagine (general manager) Jed (Hoyer) and (club president) Theo (Epstein) could swing that today.”

And while their 16 wins (the fewest in baseball) and .364 winning percentage (second lowest in baseball) don’t suggest that an 83-win season is on the horizon, Hoyer and Epstein aren’t too far off from having one on their hands.

The Cubs enter Thursday’s game against the Padres with a 16-28 record, but with 174 runs scored and 174 runs allowed, their Pythagorean Record — which uses the numbers of runs scored, runs allowed and games played to calculate how many games a team should have won— the Cubs should be 22-22 .

Forty-four games into the season, and the Cubs should be .500. It’s mind-boggling to think about this team being on the brink of being average once you break it down. It’s why I suggest proceeding with caution.

To put it in perspective: On this date in 2012, the first year of the Epstein/Hoyer regime, the Cubs were 15-27 (.357 winning percentage) with a negative-41 run differential, which was the worst in the National League and second worst in baseball. That year, the Cubs finished with 101 losses and a negative-146 run differential, the third worst in baseball. All while owning a $109 million payroll on Opening Day.

So, you’re probably wondering “what does this run differential stuff actually mean?”

Great question.

For starters, if the Cubs performed to their expectations, they would be 22-22, which would put them in third place in the NL Central behind the second-place Cardinals and the first-place Brewers — whose Pythagorean Record at this point is 24-24. In short, don’t expect the Brewers to hang around too much longer.

But back to the Cubs. And mainly, back to what Ricketts said on March 5 about Hoyer and Epstein building an 83-winner because — in essence — that is exactly what they have tried to do, albeit, without really trying to do so. It’s almost like when you’re in college and you take a bunch of leftovers and turn it into a meal that doesn’t leave you with a stomach ache.

(Not that I had that issue, as my roommates and co-workers can vouch for my cooking skills. I digress…)

The strength of the Cubs thus far has been the pitching staff, which has been built by Epstein-Hoyer.

The starting staff is 13-16 with a 3.54 earned run average — which ranks ninth in the majors. If not for Jeff Samardzija’s 0-4 start, Cubs starters would be 13-12. Furthermore, the Cubs are 1-9 in Samardzija’s starts. Meaning they are 15-19 in everyone else’s starts.

It’s not as if the Cubs have lit it up with a bunch of power arms, either. The starters have only racked up 229 strikeouts (15th in MLB), but opposing hitters are only batting .249 (10th) with a .309 on-base percentage (11th) and a .353 slugging percentage (4th).

All this from a staff that features Jason Hammel (free agent, 2014), Travis Wood (Marshall trade, 2012), Edwin Jackson (free agent, 2013) and Jake Arrieta (Feldman trade, 2013).

The starters would be better if the bullpen lent a helping hand. And even then, it’s not as if the pen has been awful — despite what a 3-12 record would suggest. Their collective 3.44 ERA ranks 11th, their opponents are only hitting .226 (7th) and slugging .331 (8th). What has plagued the Cubs bullpen the most in the 63 walks issued.

While first-year manager Rick Renteria has been subject to plenty of warranted criticism, he deserves credit in piecing together an above average bullpen from what the front office gave him.

Only James Russell (who debuted in 2010) has survived the Cubs’ organizational purge. In fact, Russell, Samardzija, Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney are the only guys who have survived from the 2012 disaster.

So, where do you think the rest of these guys came from?

Closer Hector Rondon (Rule V draft pick from the Indians in Dec. 2012), Brian Schlitter (waiver claim), Wesley Wright (free agent, 2014), Justin Grimm and Neil Ramirez (Garza trade, 2013). If not for Jose Veras (free agent, 2014) having his worst year as a pro, the Cubs bullpen could have been that much better.

So, why does the Cubs’ record still suck?

To be brief, the bats haven’t caught up to the arms, yet.

Anthony Rizzo (129 OPS+) and Starlin Castro (121) are having bounce-back years and Luis Valbuena (122) has been a solid utility infielder. In the lead-off spot, Emilio Bonifacio has been serviceable. His 3.99 pitches per plate appearance and .339 OBP batting first rank 6th and 8th among MLB lead-off hitters, respectively. Entering Thursday, Bonifacio owned a .421 OBP as the game’s first batter, which ranks second behind Kansas City’s Nori Aoki.

The rest is up for grabs.

Mike Olt’s OPS+ entering Wednesday was 90, but we went over his ridiculous stats and tremendous upside the other day. Welington Castillo is slugging .415, which puts him in the top third among catchers, but he has been slumping of late. Nate Schierholtz’s 39 OPS+ entering Wednesday was the worst among 57 outfielders who have made a minimum of 145 plate appearances.

There is no getting around the Cubs’ bad record, not to mention its 2-9 mark in 1-run games, 1-6 record in extra innings or 5-14 record in games decided by three-runs or less. So, if you’re keeping track at home, the Cubs have lost 28 games in 2014 — 23 of which have been decided by three runs or fewer.

I’m convinced that all but five games being decided in such a close manner has made this a much more painful experience than what it should be. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I’d call it growing pains.

So, where does The Plan stand?

In short, the development of arms has come faster than expected, while the bats have lagged. With things in perspective, it’s only fair to conclude that the Cubs are playing funbad baseball.

Whether you’re willing to admit it or not, they’re interesting. And that’s despite not being good. Being funbad is no easy task, my friend.

Quality pitching from the starting rotation means they’re never out of a game, while a volatile bullpen means no lead is safe. It’s high drama for three hours a day being analyzed by two of the smarter, more entertaining broadcasters in baseball. There are worse ways to spend your TV time.

And if the end game is a top-10 pick in June 2015, so be it. You get enough highly talented, upper echelon draft picks and you’re more likely to hit on a few. If you’re paying attention, that’s how the good teams do it when rebuilding.

This isn’t the first time in my life the Cubs have been bad. But it has been one of the rare years they have been intriguing despite being void of talent at the major league level at nearly every position. And for me, that is something worth keeping an eye on.

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