COMMENTARY | Rebuilding is an uncomfortable term in Major League Baseball. It hints toward a pending dry spell of anywhere between three to five years - if not longer. It sacrifices wins today in exchange for World Series titles tomorrow. It signals that a dynasty has run its course, or a promising crop of minor league talent failed to deliver. Sometimes rebuilding works, and other times it falls short. Chicago Cubs fans are well aware that the franchise is starting the second year of a long overdue rebuilding process. After finishing 2012 with a 61-101 record, the inaugural season under the watch of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer was painful but not without a glimmer of promise.
The standards of defining a great season differ vastly around MLB franchises. In the Bronx, anything less than a World Series title is failure. After winning 27 titles in 40 World Series appearances, the New York Yankees benchmark is understandably high. On Chicago's north side, the bar is significantly lower. Since the Cubs last won a World Series in 1908, and have failed to appear in the Fall Classic since 1945, division titles equate to World Series wins. Since the adoption of divisional play during the 1969 season, the Cubs have only won one of their seven postseason series. That lone series win occurred when they defeated the Atlanta Braves three-games-to-two in the 2003 National League Division Series. When Epstein and Hoyer were hired by the Cubs to reshape the organization and rebuild the franchise, they made it clear that competing for World Series titles was the new definition of a great season.
While the new regime has elevated the goal, fans cannot deny that a legitimate run at the postseason may still be a distant reality. Until the Cubs reach the postseason again, fans will have to reminisce about a team with some former glory. There are not many to choose from - since the Cubs fell victim to the Detroit Tigers in the 1945 World Series, the team has only advanced to the postseason six times. Five times as division winners and once as a wild card. Of those six teams, two stand out in my mind: 1984 and 2008.
During the summer of 1984, Jim Frey's team electrified Wrigley Field when they claimed the franchise's first division title. Just one season earlier, they finished in fifth place, 20 games under .500. The 1984 Cubs finished 96-65 (.596) and advanced to the National League Championship Series behind dominant pitching and a future Hall of Fame second baseman. After beginning the season 4-5 as a starting pitcher with the Cleveland Indians, Rick Sutcliffe dominated the NL after a mid-June trade to the Cubs. Donning a Cubs uniform, Sutcliffe finished the regular season with a 16-1 record (20-6 overall). Ryne Sandberg, in his third full season with the Cubs, hit 19 home runs and drove in 84 runs en route to his lone National League Most Valuable Player award. He scored a NL-leading 114 runs and had an OPS of .887. After winning the first two games of the NLCS, the Cubs dropped the final three games to the San Diego Padres.
In 2008, the Cubs reached the postseason for the franchise's second consecutive season. This was the first time this happened since the Cubs appeared in the World Series three consecutive times between 1906 and 1908. After winning 85 games in 2007, the Cubs finished 12 games better with 97 wins and were the top team in the National League. The Cubs were anchored with three solid starting pitchers in Ryan Dempster (17-6, 2.96 ERA), Ted Lilly (17-9, 4.09 ERA) and Carlos Zambrano (14-6, 3.91 ERA). Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez paced the team with 29 and 27 home runs respectively. Geovany Soto seized the role of starting catcher and won the National League Rookie of the Year award. But for a second consecutive season, the Cubs were swept out of the playoffs in the NLDS. This time they were victims to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
An era of rebuilding is uncertain but fans hope that memories of seasons past will be replaced with new memories. When will Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo be dousing teammates with champagne celebrating the return of the Cubs to the postseason? Or will they serve as valuable pieces in a trade to secure prospects for the future? Fans are eager for the day when debates will rage comparing the current team to those from the past. Just imagine sitting a bar following a Cubs win and overhearing the discussion, "I think this team could take the '84 Cubs in a best-of-seven series."
Only time will tell.
Bill Pearch has been following Chicago Cubs baseball since the late-1970s. He has attended a game in every Major League Baseball park and blogs about his trips at www.humzoo.com/billpearch.