By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) I’m not going to say it. That cliché has come to embody in a single sentence the worst of the ignorance — some of it real, some of it a stereotype — that has permeated the fan culture of the Chicago Cubs for so long. It’s cited by the buffoons who balked at the Jeff Samardzija-for-Addison Russell trade. It’s uttered by morons who don’t want new revenue-generating signage at Wrigley Field.
The faceless Tribune Co. sold the Cubs to Tom Ricketts and his siblings — actual people who answer to their customers — who in turn lured front office savant Theo Epstein away from Boston, who in turn changed the Cubs front office from a fantastic marketing operation to a postmodern analytical baseball operation. Now, the faux fans have dumb kids created from late Friday afternoon postgame consummations and have been pushed to the side. What’s left are the ones who desperately want to see a champion (which has created a divide between those who understand Epstein and Co.’s rebuilding process and those who think St. Theo should have turned ivy into rings by now, but that’s a different discussion for another time).
Rooting for the Cubs, one can’t help but look to the 2014 Kansas City Royals in both envy and celebration of a much-maligned organization finally done good. After the 2013 season, predicting World Series games played in Kansas City would have gotten you laughed at. So how did the Royals put themselves in a position to maybe win the World Series? And do they give any specific hope to Cub fans for … sigh… next year?
The Royals drafted well for a while and in the past raised young talent in their system, only to see it fall prey to the big-money market. General manager Dayton Moore kept plugging away in hopes that he could amass as many raw, promising bats as possible that enough could stick and grow together. That happened, for the most part.
Make no mistake — the young Royals hitters are not in the mold of what is expected from the new wave of Cubs. The 2014 Royals hit 95 home runs as a team and had not a single player crack 20. Should the Epstein project yield such results, he’d be shot into the sun. But while the individuals may differ, the larger mentality is shared in both front offices. How long had we heard every spring training that this is the year Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Billy Butler, et al would jell and make a run? The same will soon be heard regarding Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javy Baez, et al — only North Siders hope the answer comes much sooner.
Moore took his glut of prospects that a team consistently at the bottom is wont to accumulate — such as the Cubs have — and used it to acquire an ace in James Shields (this postseason aside). “The Cubs have too many shortstops in the system!” cried the foolish after the front office wheeled and dealed at 2014 the trade tradeline.
Funny thing about that is a) you can never have too many shortstops b) if a guy can play shortstop he can probably play other positions and c) who said they’re all panning out or sticking around? It should be to nobody’s surprise if one of the popular-but-not-yet-proven young names like an Addison Russell or Arismendy Alcantara or even Baez is used as a trade chip to improve elsewhere on the ballclub. That’s how this works.
A bullpen of less-than-sexy names was pieced together in Kansas City and became arguably the game’s most dominant. The Royals were 65-4 this season when leading after six innings. That’s beyond insane. Relievers are infamously fickle beings, and one can go from lights out one year to Marmol-esque the next. But at the moment, the Cubs bullpen is a strength on paper, and it’s comforting to know that what may be many runs off Cub bats won’t be for naught because a lead can’t be held.
While the Cubs’ plan differs in that they’re buying into a New School theory that you can slug your way to a title as opposed to the 2014 Royals that rode pitching and defense to the postseason, it’s not as if Jed Hoyer and Epstein haven’t set forth a promising starting rotation. Cubs starters were third-best in the National League as a collective unit in 2014. They let Jake Arrieta use the sinful cutter that was forbidden in Baltimore, and now he’s a legit fright to all opponents. It’s expected that a big-name starter will be signed this offseason, maybe even two quality arms.
The nerd numbers suggest 2015 might be a big year on the North Side. Dave Cameron wrote at the end of August wrote:
“By BaseRuns expected record, the Cubs have played like a .500 team this year. Their expected (2014) record is actually better than that of the first-place Kansas City Royals, in fact, and is not far off from what the teams contending for the NL wild cards are putting up.
“So why is this good news? Because clutch performance has basically no predictive value, and the historical record of teams that dramatically underperformed their BaseRuns expected record in one year shows that these teams often improve dramatically in the next year. Right now, the Cubs are 53 points of winning percentage below expectations.”
Data shows that teams like the 2014 Cubs, by such numbers, improve their winning percentage by 38 points the next year. Add to that the major advantage the Cubs have over the Royals — money — and Epstein isn’t lying when he says the Cubs are capable of winning the NL Central next season. And Ricketts isn’t some fanboy owner for claiming the team is playoff-caliber.
Watching the World Series this year, the Kansas City Royals don’t look quite like the Cubs’ near future in specific personnel. What may end up looking familiar in retrospect is a plan coming together in early fashion.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimBaffoe.