No. 21 Cubs: In full rebuilding mode, Chicago won't be much better but it has Anthony Rizzo
Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Chicago Cubs.
2012 record: 61-101
Finish: Fifth, NL Central
2012 final payroll: $107.7 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $103 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 21
Hashtags: #1908 #105yearplan #teardown #rebuild #again #sveumtimenextyear #taooftheo #stillcursed #hexorcism
Competency is out there somewhere, we assume. Too many intellects in the front office. Too many prospects in the system. Too much revenue to burn. Too much bad luck, bad leadership, bad karma, bat at-bats, bad everything … not to turn. Right?
Wind-whipped for more than a century, the Cubs again seek the leeward side of the game. Remember those two NL Central titles from late last decade? All that momentum? Well, 97 wins became 83, which is when the Tribune Company bolted, selling to Joe Ricketts and clan. Then 83 became 75, which became 71, which cost Jim Hendry his job, and became 61. If that didn't feel quite like rock bottom in 2012, it's only because the Houston Astros rolled in at 55, which, if nothing else, would earn Cubs fans a championship ring for misty-eyed rationalizations.
We're more than a year into the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer era, which came with impressive credentials, a good amount of optimism and a bulldozer. The immediate return was, well, painful and even a little embarrassing. The Plan – we'll go uppercase here – so far has come at a cost of a season so pathetic it ranks with the worst three or four in franchise history. Key fact here: The franchise has been around since our nation's centennial.
MLB Springboards: No. 30 Astros | No. 29 Marlins | No. 28 Mets | No. 27 Rockies | No. 26 Twins | No. 25 Pirates | No. 24 Indians | No. 23 Mariners | No. 22 Padres
One day soon, perhaps, the Cubs will field a team that represents the fruits of The Plan, which, it should be noted, does come with some leftovers from The Previous Plan(s). So, along with Anthony Rizzo at first, Starlin Castro at shortstop, Darwin Barney at second and Jeff Samardzija near the top of the rotation, the Cubs await outfielders Albert Almora, Jorge Soler and Brett Jackson. They await infielder Javier Baez and pitchers Arodys Vizcaino and Pierce Johnson. Granted, that's a lot of waiting.
In the meantime, somebody has to cover 2013. So, Theo and Co. signed pitchers Scott Feldman, Scott Baker and Kyuji Fujikawa, right fielder Nate Schierholtz, and agreed to a deal with pitcher Carlos Villanueva. In a mild surprise, they were in to the end on Anibal Sanchez, and then signed Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract.
Jackson has averaged more than 200 innings over the past four seasons, is just 29 and has pitched for something like 14 teams. So he knows his way around the game. He takes the ball, has his moments, and should earn his keep. Besides, the Cubs need players to help get them from here to there, just as long as, you know, there's going to be a 'there' there. Ultimately, that is The Plan.
As Dale Sveum recently said of 2013, "When you lose 100 games, you better go into it with a little more optimism."
From here on, it's relative. In Year Two of Extreme Makeover: Cubbies Edition, progress is progress. Get out of the bottom three in runs scored and runs prevented, for a start. Pick one and start from there. See what you can do at the trading deadline (or before) for Alfonso Soriano, Matt Garza and David DeJesus. Maybe win 70, 75 games, assuming they can make something happen.
Last place is coming probably. Fourth, at best. The organizational course to relevance is set. The North Siders seem to understand, though perhaps aren't especially happy about it. The Cubs drew fewer than three million fans for the first time since 2003, so clearly there's a line to be drawn between "in on The Plan" and "here take my money."
The alternative is to go another hundred-and-some years like the hundred-and-some they just had. Or, say, another four like the four they just had. Either way, a plan to get back to mediocre doesn't do anyone any good. It has to be bigger than that.
This is the fight Epstein took on. Make a savvy move – Andrew Cashner for Rizzo. Make another – Reed Johnson and Paul Maholm for Vizcaino. Make the draft work for you. Reach into the international arena. Save some dry powder for another day, when a real free agent or two takes you from 85 wins to 92 and hauls down the Cincinnati Reds or St. Louis Cardinals. Suffer the disappointments of a fan base that heard, "This is going to take a while," and took that to mean, "See you in October next year!"
[Related: How much did the Cubs' payroll go up this season?]
There's a way to do this that makes sense. Very few don't believe Epstein is the right man to make the Cubs real again. The in-between can be brutal, however. Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery. Garza didn't pitch in the second half because of elbow issues. Feldman had a 5.09 ERA in Texas. Samardzija is finding his way as a starter. Jackson is a career sub-.500 pitcher.
The good times are out there. Just not today. Not yet.
The franchise and its fans need a symbol of the future, preferably one that can hit and hit for power. Somebody they can believe in. Somebody whose jersey represents a coming stability. Somebody who'll drive in a run every once in a while.
The answer is Rizzo, a big, 23-year-old, left-handed-hitting first baseman. In what amounted to a half-season with the Cubs, he batted .285, hit 15 home runs, and hit .338 with runners in scoring position. He raked righties. He has time to figure out lefties. Along with Castro, with any luck, Rizzo will have stuck out the The Plan and become his generation's Mr. Cub.
A trusty lament
Then another one-oh-one
Curses, you next year
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