I was actually going to save this post for when the Cubs collapse/utter failure was complete, which looking at the schedules is probably going to happen against the Cardinals, and possibly even in St. Louis. And after a summer following THAT team winning a Cup, that’s a little more than I can handle right now.
Still, when I saw the Tribune this morning, and saw Theo Epstein calling for his team to “turn it on,” it felt like the time was now.
Most Cubs fans have been waiting for the Cubs to kick into another gear all season, except for that one stretch in mid-April to May. But after 131 games, one would have to think this is what the Cubs are, a team that basically specializes in flattering to deceive.
The exact quote:
“We’ve been waiting to put it all together and be the best version of ourselves, and I think we all know in this clubhouse it has to happen really soon for us to get to where we want to go,”
But the question you have to ask is whom exactly is this addressed to? The team’s core? Well, Willson Contreras is hurt, but even with that all of Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, and Contreras are performing at or beyond the level of last year. Baez’s recent slump has taken him below his ’18 campaign, but as he’s had to play every single goddamn day because Theo failed to locate an adequate backup shortstop–or one that isn’t a complete dickhead and is also not adequate offensively–maybe you could excuse that a bit. And again, last year’s performance won 95 games.
Is it the rotation? Who is performing below expectations in the rotation? Jose Quintana has propped the staff up over the last month. Hendricks is way better than he was last year, though not at his career bests. Hamels was great until getting hurt. Yu took a half season to figure it out but are we honestly suggesting he has somewhere more to rise to after walking exactly one hitter in a month? I hate to break it to Theo, but this is what Jon Lester is now at 35. Sure, they haven’t been as consistent as you might have hoped, with each having a stretch of being an avalanche. But each have also had a stretch of dominance, and overall they’re top-five in the NL in ERA and FIP. Isn’t that about where you had them before the season? Didn’t that sound like it would be more than enough in March?
No, the reason this team is trying to run a race with a sprained ankle is the supporting cast Theo put around that core turned out to suck deep pond scum. Albert Almora can’t hit. Kyle Schwarber is a poor man’s Joey Gallo and only if you squint really hard. They’ve gotten nothing from second base, and losing Ben Zobrist shouldn’t have turned that spot into GWAR’s giant void. Ian Happ is looking like the version that got sent down again.
Do we have to go through the bullpen again? Do we have to go through the complete lack of cheap, young, power arms that Theo has failed to produce other than maybe Rowan Wick? I don’t think we have to.
When Theo talks about turning it up, he’s essentially asking his core to play at career-high levels. And for a month, that can certainly happen. Except one’s got a bad back, another is probably exhausted, and another is on the shelf with hamstring-twang. So…maybe that’s a longshot?
Later in this article, Theo goes on to complain that the Cubs have lost their approach and ways from when they were hot early in the season, that all-field, grind-out-ABs gauntlet that he thinks they should be. But what’s clear is that they’re not. They haven’t been for a long time. They’ve cycled through hitting coaches trying to deflect from that, but at some point it ain’t the arrows, son. These are your hitters. They’re either too stubborn or too stupid or just not equipped.
When the epitaph of this season is written, whenever that might be, it’ll be a measure of how much the supporting cast failed. Maybe the Cubs didn’t get an MVP-level performance from any of the main four, but it would be hard to make the case they didn’t get enough if anyone else had come along for the ride. But Jason Heyward’s barely .800 OPS isn’t enough (and it’s not even that now, but don’t dare move him from the leadoff spot because he’ll get cranky!). Same goes for Schwarber. Trusting Almora, Bote, and Russell after exactly none of them had ever put up even an average offensive season in the majors isn’t about “turning it on.” It’s about them not being good enough.
Forgetting to construct a bullpen isn’t about running in a lower gear for the fuck of it. Trying to rebuild it with Derek Holland and David Phelps isn’t about finding a switch. That doesn’t mean lavish amounts of money needed to be spent, and when the Cubs tried that it got them Operation Model Brandon Morrow or the weirdness of Craig Kimbrel with no spring training or first half. It’s about creativity and maybe finding a failed starter or two around who do have two pitches but can’t negotiate a lineup twice. Or producing some fire-breather from within who you know will only be around a max of three years but you enjoy it anyway. Theo did exactly none of this.
That doesn’t mean something silly or unforeseen can’t happen. Russell or Schwarber could binge for three weeks. Contreras could return and not miss a beat (and his Sept. ’17 when coming back from the same thing suggests it’s hardly an impossibility). Rizzo’s back-knack could just be a small thing. And that might be enough.
But as far as who has “underperformed?” No, there really aren’t that many, if any, who can have that label attached to them. More likely, those players are exactly what you see, which isn’t good enough.