Baltimore lost 93 games in 2011 and made the playoffs in 2012.
Arizona lost 97 games in 2010 and made the playoffs in 2011.
Tampa Bay lost 96 games in 2007 and made the playoffs in 2008.
And our Cubs lost 96 games in 2006 but made the playoffs in 2007.
The recent history proves it; a really bad team can turn it around in a single season. The 2012 Cubs were a REALLY bad team.
Big Turnarounds Often Start With Pitching…
Let’s just start with those 2007 Cubs. The division was garbage, only 85 wins put the Cubs in the playoffs. The Cubs’ best hitters all had very good years (Lee, Ramirez, Soriano); their best pitchers had very solid, consistent years-Zambrano, Lilly, Hill, Marquis all threw 190+ innings. It’s easy to see the 2007 Cubs as an average team. But the 2008 Rays were far from average. A year after losing 96, they won 97. What was their big change? Pitching! In 2007, they scored 782 runs, in 2008 they totaled 774 runs scored. But they surrendered 944 in 2007, while holding opponents to a scant 671 runs in 2008. Similar to the Cubs, their improvement was due to consistency. The 2007 Rays had two consistently good starters (Shield, Kazmir); in 2008 they had five starters who each made at least 27 starts and four of them pitched at least 180 innings. The result? Team ERA went from 5.53 to 3.82, easily the best turnaround in the league that year. Arizona realized similar improvement from their pitching staff from 2010 to 2011; from two reliable starters to four, from giving up 836 runs to only 662. And guess what happened for Baltimore from 2011 to 2012? It’s boring ready the same thing over and over again, right? Baltimore significantly improved their pitching last year, but it wasn’t all consistency. They spent much of the year cobbling together a rotation. But what binds these four teams together is the lack of offensive improvement; none of them put up significantly more runs the year after they lost 90+ games.
Still Though The Cubs Had A Terrible Offense In 2012, Right?
Well, yes. That’s a decent point, 613 runs is not enough to compete. Since 2005 (when two teams made the playoff without scoring 700 runs) only two teams have managed to score so few runs and stay competitive. The 2010 Giants scored 697 runs but had an incredible pitching staff; and the 2012 Reds managed only 669 runs but also had an incredible group of pitchers. In fact, you have to go back to 1988 to find an MLB team that scored fewer runs than this Cincinnati did this year while still making the playoffs. The World Series champion Dodgers did it in ’88. And not since the 1973 Mets has a team scored fewer runs than the 2012 Cubs did, while still making the playoffs. So yes, there needs to be significant improvement offensively before the Cubs can reasonably expect to compete.
The Offense Won’t Come Overnight!
The Angels added the best hitter of the generation and the best rookie of all-time, they saw a bump of 100 runs in offense from 2011 to 2012. The White Sox almost saw a similar increase when (in part) Adam Dunn reminded himself that putting the bat on the ball was a good thing. But Detroit added Prince Fielder and actually scored over 60 fewer runs; while Milwaukee scored over 50 more runs after they lost Fielder. So after watching the 2012 Cubs, can we expect them to score more? Probably, enough to be respectable? That’s stretching it…we’ll get a full year from Rizzo, hopefully avoid the guaranteed out that Soriano was for the season’s first six weeks, and potentially get a bit more offense out of third base (we can’t get any less, right? no please, someone agree with me – it really can’t get any worse there, can it?). But the changes the Cubs have made don’t add up to anywhere near 100 more runs.
So No Playoffs, Right?
I hate to spoil the surprise, but the you can’t JUST look at the records. Not all 90+ loss teams are created equal. The Cubs were historically bad both on the mound and at the plate. Could we have a significantly better pitching staff? Definitely. If Garza & Samardzija pitch 180+ innings, Edwin Jackson too; then if just one more of the rotation filler pieces can pan out, that’s four reliable starters which would go a long way towards keeping the team ERA at a competitive level. It’s the offensive part that’s going to be difficult. Even if the pitching staff comes together in the best possible way, it’s unlikely that the Cubs will magically score 700+ runs this year. For that to happen, nearly every regular would need to have a better year than even the most optimistic fan could hope for right now. Remember, we’re likely to have Nate Schierholtz in RF everyday; he probably won’t approach a .750 OPS. Neither will whatever is trotted out to third base. Barney is below average offensively; Castillo is a wild card. Basically, we need a handful of new players before the offense can reasonably be expected to improve. But if by some miracle the Cubs start out scoring 4-5 runs/game…nope, it’s not going to happen.