by Mark Strickler
‘Are you really better off than you were 8 years ago?’ ‘Where’s the beef?’ We all know these phrases from our past – they were poignant at the time and they also have some relevancy insofar as the 2014 Cubs. In 2010 the Ricketts family bought the Cubs – at the time Sam Zell was the owner and (for some curious reason) he decided to keep the unprofitable part of the organization (i.e. the Chicago Tribune and other print media) and jettison the profitable parts (the Cubs, it’s relationship with Comcast Sports and WGN.) Since that time the Cubs have belly-flopped – we’ve all been sold on a rebuild that promises the moon and the stars but offers next to nothing for now or the immediate future. The team has plummeted in terms of results since 2010 and it only improved a little last year. So what do we have to look forward to – is it a positive future or a shoeshine and a smile? My short term predictions are as follows:
- The Cubs will be a below .500 team in 2014; lower attendance and sales will start to have more impact on liquidity for the Ricketts family. These results are due to a strategic fault by Joe/Tom Ricketts and Epstein – they miscalculated the importance of putting a decent product on the field during the rebuild. I expect the 2015 team to be close to or above 100 losses;
- Some highly touted prospects will make appearances in 2014 and 2015. The results will be mixed – this also applies to major hopefuls that are currently on the roster. The “net net” is that the rebuild will not produce a serious contender for the foreseeable future;
- The top management will devote too much of their attention toward construction projects and other lower priority objectives such as mascots and making Wrigley a better advertising platform and party area. They will also sever or greatly reduce their relationship with WGN and seriously erode their national exposure, future fan base and merchandise sales. Their myopic short-term vision will ultimately combine to force the upside-down Ricketts family to sell the Cubs and either “sell short” or barely break even.
So here’s why I’m thinking these things will happen. I invite reader comments so that we can discuss in a positive and analytical manner.
Last year’s Cubs team was better than the previous but still not enough to motivate many of us to watch regularly. The talent level was better than in 2012 but still produced a last place team. What makes us think that the 2014 team will be markedly better? This year’s offseason hasn’t produced any major signings that have led me to believe that this team will be better. I predict a worse record in 2014 than last year and another last place finish.
With regard to talent we got to see some of our future last year. Starlin Castro projects to be a decent hitter but I don’t see him ever being an average shortstop. He will never get to the level that Shawon Dunston was defensively and he can’t even dream about being the same kind of middle infielder that Don Kessinger was. My projection is that he will put on more muscle and eventually be an average to above average left fielder or an American League DH. As for Anthony Rizzo – he can really put some zip on his hits but I hate his mechanics. These flaws will become more apparent as he gets older, he is an average to above average first baseman with is glove. If he plateaus he will have a career similar to Derrek Lee’s. Wellington Castillo is a work in process at best – I will have to see more of him before I can rate him as anything more than average to above average. Travis Wood is an above average prospect but may not be in our future because of the money that he will want. Samardzija will likely be gone by the All Star game if not before. He probably won’t be worth the money he will get due to competitive considerations.
As for the guys in the minors – Baez can hit but he can’t field well (40+ errors and he isn’t 18 anymore.) He projects as a potential All Star left fielder. Kris Bryant also projects as a good-hitting potential All Star left fielder – how many guys can we put out there and who will play on the left side of the infield? Almora has all kinds of question marks for me. Good athletic build, good swing (unlike Corey Patterson) but not enough zip – I think he plateaus as an above average corner outfielder. Again, we have problems with how many guys we can put in left field and Almora doesn’t have the bat for right in my opinion. At starting pitcher we have two or three guys who might compete for the last two spots in the rotation and in the pen we might have a couple of guys to look at. To say the least I’m not thrilled about the future. We have future question marks at catcher, starting pitcher, relief, closer, first base, second base, third base and center field. I’m not convinced the rebuild is going so well.
What about the off-field activities? Will you and I really benefit from all the construction activities, billboards and (wow) a mascot? Let me preface my comments by first saying I hate mascots, I’d rather see “Pennywise the dancing clown” (from Stephen King’s book “It”) than Clark the Cub. Mascots suck and I put them in the same category as the Astros choo-choo, Hawk Harrelson, Ronnie Woo Woo and other baseball annoyances. The game is about balls and strikes, not smelly guys and gals in creepy-looking uniforms. The decision that the Ricketts family is contemplating (terminating the Cubs relationship with WGN) has more long lasting consequences. Generations have grown up watching the Cubs on WGN because it’s available almost everywhere and their grandfather or father were Cubs fans. Can they really keep that national fan base without national TV exposure? What about people like me that don’t live in Chicago that won’t pay for MLB Extra Innings just to watch a losing team who doesn’t improve? (Granted, I still get Extra Innings but now I watch the Indians because I’m so disgusted with the Cubs.) What will these fans do when they can’t watch the Cubs? My guess is that (like me) they will adopt other teams to watch.
In conclusion I’m not as optimistic as others about the Cubs future. This year is a “fish or cut bait” season for me after following the team for 45 years. Will they turn the corner? Or will I be so disillusioned with the team that I abandon them like I did the Blackhawks after William Wirtz sold that team down the river? It was too late for me when Rocky took over the Hawks and it might be too late when some future owner straightens out the Cubs. I hope it won’t be.