The Cubs lost 101 games this year. That shouldn’t be news. Cresting the century mark is something the Cubs have done only TWICE before. In 1962 and 1966 the Cubs posted identical 59-103 records.
This team had an excuse. Just two years before, the 1960 Cubs featured an average age of 28.2 and switched managers after 17 games. That team finished 60-94 good for 7th (out of 8) in the NL. What had changed by 1962? The average age was 25.6, and P.K. Wrigley was more than a year into the debacle known as the College of Coaches. There are two ways to look at this team – a lineup that boasted Banks, Santo, Williams, and even Lou Brock. Four HOFers. Some people look at that and say, “How did they lose 103?”; others look at it and say, “If only the Cubs hadn’t traded Lou Brock!” The latter is a realization that Santo, Williams, and Brock were each at least a year away from their prime. In Santo and Williams the Cubs had the 1960 and 1961 NL Rookie of the Year winners, respectively. Lou Brock was playing his first full MLB season, and wouldn’t see his career blossom until year three. Santo, age 22; Williams, 24; and Brock, 23 reflected the general makeup of the everyday players the Cubs were penciling into the lineup. Only Ernie Banks, at 31, had seen his 30th birthday. The rotation was even younger, Bob Buhl all of 33 years old was still 7 years older than the next regular starter. All but three of the regular Cub pitchers (rotation or bullpen) were 27 or younger. They did finish with a Pythagorean record of 61-101, so they were a bit unlucky.
This team had no excuse. Ok, well very little excuse – at least as it relates to losing 100. The College of Coaches started to die a slow death after 1962. That death would be complete following 1965 when the Cubs hired Leo Durocher. Yes, Brock had been infamously traded (in 1963) and immediately became an MVP candidate, finishing 10th in the voting that season. But Santo had finished 8th in 1963, ahead of Brock. That started Santo’s stretch of 7 years where he was a stalwart of the Cubs attack and the best 3B in the NL, a perennial All-Star and regular MVP candidate. Williams had finished further down the MVP ballot in both 1964 & 1965. And the Cubs had talented youth in support; future fantasy camp organizer Randy Hundley, Don Kessinger, and Glenn Beckert were regulars in 1966. Stocked with impressive names, this team was still young. Even now it reads as a team too young to compete at the highest level – but surely they’d lose fewer than 100? Except the pitching was deplorable. Worst in the NL in nearly every category, their best pitcher was acquired after one appearance with the Phillies. A young right-hander named Ferguson Jenkins would log 60 appearances, only 12 starts; but he racked up an incredible 184.1 innings, 72 of which came in the last 5 weeks of the season when he became a regular starter. They were incredibly unlucky, their Pythagorean record was 64-98.
To have only 3 100-loss seasons in franchise history is actually a stellar record. For franchises in existence before 1961, only the Reds, Giants (each with a single such season), Yankees, and Dodgers (each with two such seasons) can now boast a better history than the Cubs. Interestingly, the Cubs now find themselves tied with their cross-town brethren. Contrast that with the Cardinals (4), Indians (5), Tigers (6), Red Sox (7), Pirates (8), Orioles (10), Braves (13), Phillies (14), and A’s (with an incredible 15 such seasons) and the Cubs look pretty good. Especially when you consider that prior to 1961 baseball played only 154 games, it would seem more difficult to have accumulated so many 100-loss seasons. But losing 100 was MORE common then. Most expansion teams have at least one 100-loss simply due to those first few years of fielding a mediocre roster – with the Rockies and Angels being the most notable exceptions, never having lost 100 games.
What Does It Mean For The Future?
The Cubs’ previous 100-loss seasons have virtually no bearing on what to expect in the future. Times were different, free agency didn’t exist and I don’t think anyone is looking at the 2012 Cubs thinking it had 4 future HOFers or a roster full of very-soon-to-be everyday regulars to compliment them. And though the post-1966 Cubs were fairly successful (finishing 2nd or 3rd until 1973) – even they didn’t achieve ultimate success. Of recent 100-loss teams elsewhere in baseball, the Tigers took 3 years to turn it around to win the 2006 AL pennant. The Diamondbacks took 3 years before losing in the 2007 NLCS. The Marlins took 5 years to win the 2003 World Series. The Brewers took 6 years to win the 2008 Wild Card. The Rays took 6 years also, and have emerged not just as a pennant winner, but a top tier AL team. And the team everyone will be talking about if they can continue to advance, the Nationals took 3 years to become the NL’s best team. Of course, Bryce Harper and Steven Strasburg aren’t in the draft every year. Gio Gonzalez isn’t available to acquire in a trade every year either. But as you can see, there is no fast track to rebuilding a team that lost 100 games. The Tigers needed an entirely new lineup, and a couple of new pitchers – one named Justin Verlander. The Nationals needed the two best No. 1 picks in forever, fast-tracked to the majors, and producing right away – and there’s no guarantee they’ll even win a playoff series!
So I’m aiming low; my only desire is that the Cubs don’t again lose 100 games in 2013. There’s precedent for that, and not all of it is good; I don’t want to become the Kansas City Cubs of Chicago.