With just two weeks left in the season, we’re well past the point of trying to figure out who and what the Cubs are. Which is to say it’s been pretty obvious for months now that they’re a frustratingly mediocre ballclub with an incongruous collection of talent that has been hampered by injury and inconsistent performance.
Point fingers wherever you choose, the fact of the matter is that the only expectations the 2019 Cubs have exceeded are those of PECOTA. Saturday’s 14-1 romp over the Pirates gave the Cubs their 80th win of the season and led to more than a little social media dunking on Baseball Prospectus. Huh, maybe the folks at BP shouldn’t have doubled down and spiked the ball after the Cubs’ 2-7 start.
But I digress.
The point is that the Cubs are clearly not the team everyone had thought they’d be a few years ago. That 2016 title came early, leading to a widespread belief that they’d actually be better over the 3-4 subsequent seasons in which their entire core was still together and entering their prime years.
Except that hasn’t happened for whatever reason, leading to talk about them playing uninspired baseball and getting embarrassing results from the leadoff spot in particular. The farm system has failed to produce anything of impact in terms of pitching, and the position players who’ve come up — pending Nico Hoerner’s continued success — seem to have plateaued far too early.
Then there are the injuries that have robbed them of key performers like Javy Báez and Kris Bryant for long stretches of the past two seasons. Toss in Joe Maddon’s uncertain future, Ben Zobrist’s extended absence, and ubiquitous specter of trades involving Bryant or other key players and you’ve got a recipe for a team that is pressing.
Patrick Mooney of The Athletic asked Bryant and others about whether all those distractions have impacted the Cubs this season ($). He got a very candid response.
“I’d say so 1,000 percent,” Bryant said. “Everybody in this clubhouse is human. When you start hearing things like that, when Joe starts hearing things like that, myself included, you start thinking a little bit. The past four years, none of that has happened and it’s just kind of been we’re cruising along.
“But personally, whatever happens for me happens. All I can do is really focus on these last (14) games and doing all I can to help the team win. And I think I’ve been doing that for five years here now. I’m willing toot my own horn a little bit — I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it.”
None of this is new, per se, but there are signs that the Cubs may have turned a corner with these last two big wins. While a lot of it may come from facing a Pirates team that has clearly checked out on the season, the Cubs have displayed more emotion and have begun to more closely resemble those ’15 and ’16 teams since this final homestand started.
A lot of that is Bryant being pain-free and once again driving the ball with authority. More of it may be getting Zobrist back and having Hoerner in the lineup reminding them of what it was like to come up and play without a blueprint for how things should be. He’s out there simply enjoying himself, something his teammates may have forgotten along the way.
“Just the expectation has changed,” Bryant admitted. “In ’15, we weren’t expected to win. It was, ‘Let’s just go out there and play and have a good year and we’ll see at the end of the year.’ We made the playoffs — and then 2016 winning it all — it’s like: ‘Well, that’s our expectations now.’
“We as players have to find a way to not get so tight and not let certain things get to us. We want to win so bad. We’re trying so hard. Like I said, when you do that, you don’t set yourself up for success.”
After spending the better part of the season not setting themselves up for success, is it too late for the Cubs to turn things around at this point? Maybe not, but it’s not necessarily up to them. The Cardinals started turning it on a while ago despite making no significant deadline additions, perhaps because they’ve been playing loose.
Maddon spoke recently about “infiltrating the group” in an effort to get his team to stop playing so tight, though exactly what that means must be left to the imagination. Whether that has worked or it’s just a matter of facing a Pirates team that has gone belly-up, the Cubs have scored 31 runs in the last two games and even came back from a four-run deficit Friday that might have been their undoing earlier in the year.
Epstein’s harsh words may have even galvanized the clubhouse to some extent, though the idea that such a possibility even existed in the first place is a little troubling. All that really matters at this point is that the Cubs get to playing the brand of baseball they seem to have lost the patent for shortly after creating it a few years ago.
Some no doubt believe it’s already far too little and late, but there’s still plenty of baseball left to make things happen. If, that is, Bryant and the Cubs are indeed serious about finally shutting out the distractions and letting the talent take over.