By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) One regular-season game definitely doesn’t make a season. The Cubs’ 16-4 crushing of the Diamondbacks on Tuesday night is probably more a product of Arizona pitching collectively having no stuff in one of those basebally happenings in which everything fall apart quickly and throughout the game. Bully for the Cubs.
But it’s got me thinking: What if the Cubs are actually… good?
I know, I know. They’ve massively underachieved this season to the tune of nine games over .500 and 2.5 games ahead in first place in the National League Central over the Milwaukee Brewers — despite trailing the Brewers by 5.5 games on July 15. This season has been arguably a failure so far in its lack of sheer dominance.
What a 14-3 record since the All-Star Break presupposes is … maybe the Cubs don’t suck.
I mean, the whole self-torture April through June about this team was satisfying for those whose career Cub fan lives have rendered them dead inside. To feel anything beats the great nothing, and even winning a World Series hasn’t quite cured the desire by many Cubs fans to self-mutilate.
But the starting pitching — the bane of this team in the first half of 2017 — has looked a lot more like the rock it was in 2016. The staff has 11 of those 14 second-half wins and has given up one measly first-inning run since the break after surrendering 80 in the first 88 games.
None of that is definitive, even with the addition of left-hander Jose Quintana to the rotation and his 183 ERA+ since moving to the North Side. And left-hander Jon Lester not being able to get through five innings in Tuesday’s blowout of a team that’s 14 games over .500 and holds the second National League wild-card spot by five full games pulls me a bit back toward that comfortable skepticism. Still, I can’t help but start to think that maybe the Cubs don’t suck.
Consider the latest trade the Cubs front office made, acquiring lefty reliever Justin Wilson and backup catcher Alex Avila in exchange for the last drips in the once-lauded prospect tank (which you are totally righteous to be depressed about).
Wilson’s specific merits are abundant. This year, he’s posted a career-best 2.89 DRA, and he’s been at least 12 percent better than the league average in that metric since his sophomore season in 2013. His 35 percent strikeout rate is exceptional, and although he walks about 10 percent of hitters, he’s an artist at suppressing hits and hard contact. In a run environment like this, those are very valuable qualities. He’ll complement the Cubs’ other ams well and possibly take over the closer’s role from Wade Davis if the righty departs via free agency this offseason.
Like, that’s oddly reassuring for a bullpen that was never really a weakness to begin with. And, oooooo, super-exciting backup to Willson Contreras, right?
“Willson plays like the Energizer Bunny,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We all know that. But everyone has their limits and we have to be very careful not to wear him down, to make sure he’s fresh during the pennant race. We risk too much not making moves like this.”
Pennant race? You have to be a good team to be involved in a pennant race. What if Hoyer knows something we didn’t all these months? Maybe it’s whatever is making Baseball Prospectus project the Cubs to play .579 baseball the rest of the way. Or Fangraphs think the Cubs right now have a 95.4 percent chance of making the playoffs.
“First, winning July is very similar to winning the offseason as we always talk about in the winter,” Hoyer said. “You try to make moves to set yourself up for October and hopefully to get to October. You try to make moves to set yourself up for your future as well.
“In that regard, I feel like we’re definitely a stronger team now than when we got Quintana in the middle of the month.”
Yeah, easy to say now. But the Cubs were reportedly super duper close to waving the white flag if they continued to scuffle out of the break.
“If we had fallen eight, nine out, we certainly would have been looking at considering moving some of the players who were rentals,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Tuesday. “But we immediately played great out of the stretch and didn’t have to head down that road, which you obviously never want to go down.”
See? The anxiety and fatalism was justified because even Epstein had considered a situation that would have required the Cubs to play at a worse rate than they were, unlikely as that was. It’s totally possible that the Cubs could have traded right-hander Jake Arrieta and Davis for sweet, sweet prospects.
But none of that happened. And now the Cubs are in first place and not showing signs that they’ll give that up.
Which is really weird to think about, seeing as we observers have no experience with anything like this Cub-wise ever before. Wow, this team might actually be good.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.