A few weeks ago, my best friend from grade school dropped me a line and asked for a prediction on the Cubs season. This surprised me since I’m a fan of analytics and he hates them. He suggested that 75 wins seemed reasonable.
In the scattered free moments I’ve had since his inquiry, I’ve thought about it and realized it was a really complex issue. The 2012 Cubs won 61 and lost 101, presumably the bottoming out of a long freefall that began during the 2008 postseason. 75 wins would mark a nearly 25% improvement which seems ambitious for a team whose top free agent signing was journeyman starting pitcher Edwin Jackson. I wondered if my pal was caught up in spring training.
I looked at the 2012 Cubs, painful task that it was, and discovered reasons for optimism. First of all, although the team won only 61 games, their run differential—the ol’ reliable Bill James Pythagorean Formula–had the Cubs with 65. A ten game improvement is a much less ambitious task. The offensive problems will be helped by a full year of 23 year old First Baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has been regarded a future star for a few years. Last season, he began to live up to that promise in the show with 15 home runs in barely half a season. The major woes were in the starting rotation, which gave up 759 runs, and that’s where the Cubs offseason moves, Jackson and mostly under the radar acquisitions like Carlos Villanueva, Scott Feldman and Scott Baker, figure to help out. It isn’t anyone’s idea of a championship starting five, but that isn’t the aim, respectability or at least hailing distance of it, is.
Then I began to consider a slightly different issue. Does Cubs management want to win 75 games? In the new CBA, draft position matters more than it used to, and the Cubs are still a draft or two from having all the pieces on board of a team that they think will contend. Might some sort of fire sale of the newcomers torpedo the potential progress and leave the team closer to 100 losses than a .500 record?
Then another concept occurred to me. Teams generally have to sell their fans wins or hope. The Toronto Blue Jays are selling their fans on the idea that they can go all the way with all of their bold new acquisitions. OTOH, the San Diego Padres can point a battalion of good young players and give their fans hope of a contender in the future. The Cubs can’t do either of those. They have some good young players in Rizzo, shortstop Starlin Castro, and pitcher Jeff Samardzija, but that’s about halfway to a sale on hope. A team that finished 40 games under .500 can even joke about selling wins.
So the Cubs may need to show steady progress. It’s the second year of the Theo Epstein regime on the North Side and consecutive putrid seasons might ratchet up the heat for future seasons. 75 wins and the rise of talented prospects in the minors could be the combo plate of wins and hopes that the administration needs to stay its course.
Perhaps that’s why Vernon Wells and not Alfonso Soriano is a Yankee today. Both have exorbitant contracts but maybe the Cubs wanted Soriano’s production to help them inch toward .500.
So I told my pal that yeah, it seems reasonable. He responded that he had already called Vegas to place his bet. I sighed.