On Wednesday, the Cubs’ owner, Tom Ricketts said that he thinks the Cubs “have a team right now that can go to the playoffs.” While Ricketts’ optimistic outlook makes for a good news story, it is hardly believable. Since the Ricketts purchased the team in 2009, the Cubs have failed to make the playoffs in 5 consecutive seasons. While the minor league team has dramatically improved by acquiring players through: draft picks (such as Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Albert Almora); international signings (Jorge Soler); and trades (CJ Edwards, Arodys Vizcaino), the major league team has been utterly abysmal. To the tune of 356-453 over the past 5 seasons, 197 of those losses in 2012 and 2013.
The initial strategy of shedding the mammoth contracts of past GM Jim Hendry (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol) is finally complete, and now the Cubs’ starting lineup is filled with positional platoon players that would not be starting on other major league teams. There is a difference between the “Moneyball” approach of Billy Beane and what is going on in Chicago. Players like Justin Ruggiano, Nate Schierholtz, George Kottaras, Luis Valbuena, and so on would probably not be accumulating substantial playing time on any other team, let alone a “playoff team.” The low budget roster is even more frustrating for Cubs fans as quiet reports around the league in 2013 estimated that the Cubs were the most profitable team in baseball.
Beyond the fact that overall results have been poor so far, and the fact that their current trend gives no reason to expect a playoff appearance in 2014, there is another issue with Tom Ricketts’ most recent statement: the quality of opponents in the National League. The National League is stacked with teams that boast high potential young players and already-competitive teams. Prime examples exist in the NL Central: the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Along with major league teams that won 97 and 94 games, respectively, each team is loaded with youth and potential. Young major league players like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, and Matt Adams will soon be joined by minor leaguers like Jameson Taillon, Carlos Martinez, Oscar Taveras, and so on.
Additionally, teams like the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers are built on exceedingly strong foundations. Consider how good and how young the Nationals pitching staff is with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez. Or how tough the Braves would be in the playoffs with a lineup including Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton, Dan Uggla (not to mention a pitching staff that features young stars like Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Julio Teheran, and the game’s most dominant closer, Craig Kimbrel). And don’t even get me started on the Dodgers, who seemingly have unlimited resources and talent beyond belief (I am not sure what is better, their 1-2 Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke punch, their lineup with Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, etc., or their bullpen with Brian Wilson, Brandon League, and oh yeah, Kenley Jansen).
The thought of the Cubs facing any of those teams in any sort of a series seems unmanageable. Right now, our number one pitcher, Jeff Samardzija, would be at best a number two pitcher on any of the above teams, but most likely a number three or four. How would you feel about Samardzija v. Adam Wainwright? Or Strasburg, or Kershaw? Followed by Edwin Jackson against Zack Greinke? There is no feature of the Cubs that matches up with any of the teams listed above… especially the Braves, Dodgers, and Nationals (yes, I am aware that the Nationals did not make the playoffs last year, but watch for them this year). I haven’t even mentioned the Cincinnati Reds, mostly because they are a team that has a much shorter window to win. The scariest thing about the 5 teams other than the Reds is that they all have strong minor league systems, have recently brought up their minor league strength, or have both strength in the minors and young major league teams. Whether the Cubs will be competitive when their youth comes up remains to be seen, but the Opening Day major league roster for the Chicago Cubs, the one that will include Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, and a whole lot of marginal players cannot compete with the likes of the other National League teams. If you want an accurate outlook on 2014 try this: “There’s always next year.”