Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer spent years Frankensteining the hell out a baseball team with a bunch of spare parts and some prospects that might as well have been grown in a baseball laboratory (and you have to say it like “luh-bore-uh-tory” so it sounds more mad science-y). Then they brought in a guy in Joe Maddon who was just crazy enough to want to take over the management of the partially finished product.
What began as a stumbling, shuffling shadow of a baseball team has now become a veritable juggernaut that’s just rolling through the league and trampling everything in its path. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a new piece of trivia about how the Cubs are the best thing since indoor plumbing (apologies to any Cards fans who may not appreciate that reference — oh, calm down, I’m kidding) and it’s gotten to the point where facts have become hyperbolic.
I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece a couple weeks back asking whether this was the best team ever assembled in the history of ever, and that was when they were 14-5. In the time since, they’ve gone 11-1 and have opened up an 8.5 game lead in the division. There’s also the matter of that +103 run differential, which is just…yeah.
The Cubs are on pace to outscore their opponents by 538 runs over the course of 130-ish wins. They’ve got four hitters among the top 17 in fWAR (Dexter Fowler – 2.4 (2nd); Kris Bryant – 1.8 (10th); Anthony Rizzo – 1.5 (15th); Ben Zobrist – 1.5 (17th) and three pitchers among the top nine in ERA (Jake Arrieta – 1.13 (2nd); Jason Hammel – 1.85 (7th); Jon Lester – 1.96 (9th). There were questions about whether the early success was the product of a weak schedule, but sweeps of the Pirates and Nationals effectively euthanized such silliness.
Whether it’s blowout victories or walk-offs on Mother’s Day that lead to Sports Illustrated cover stories, it seems as though the Cubs can do no wrong at this point. In short, everything’s coming up Milhouse on the North Side of Chicago. It almost feels too good to be true. So is it?
“This is not baseball reality,” Epstein admitted prior to Tuesday’s close shave with the Padres. “Baseball reality is it’s really hard to win a single major-league game. That’s why we celebrate it so much.”
“We know we’re in a stretch right now where winning seems far easier than it actually is. We know there’s going to be a stretch – probably a long stretch this year – where winning even one game seems virtually impossible. That’s just the nature of baseball. We’re not blinded by it.”
The Cubs might be “the last great American sports story,” but there’s going to be a time here in the near future when the superlatives stop for a few games. Arrieta will get shelled or Bryzzo will slump, maybe David Ross will get ejected from a game and then cuss out an umpire. Who knows.
Thing is, this team isn’t just built to run away and hide from the rest of the league. The Cubs will be able to withstand the inevitable onslaught of torch-and-pitchfork wielding villagers who are fed up with the aforementioned trampling. That’s where the overall depth of talent, not to mention that big division lead, really come into play. Then you’ve got the matter of latent minor league talent, which will come in handy whether it be in the form of injury replacement or trade commodities.
This is all very special though. What the Cubs are doing right now is something we really haven’t seen from them before and might never see again. Well, until next year anyway. It’s no secret that the goals and expectations are pretty firmly established by now and that falling short of the ultimate prize would be disappointing. But don’t let your focus on October distract too much from what’s taking place in the present.
At the same time, you can’t fret too much when the momentum inevitably slows a bit. Epstein was right on the mark when he said that the reality of baseball is that it’s hard to win even a single game and that those wins should be celebrated. It’s also easy to lose a single game, and those losses need to be put in the rearview mirror immediately. In other words, try not to suck all the fun out of things at the first sign of a downturn.
With such a long season, the momentum the Cubs have right now is sure to slow down. I mean, an .800 winning percentage is simply unsustainable. Call me a skeptic, but I can’t see them winning more than maybe 125 games and posting a +500 run differential. That means we’re looking at 31 more chances for Debbie Downer to tell us that the hype was unwarranted. Brace yourselves.