As we enter today’s off day before playing the Philadelphia Phillies in a four game road series, the Chicago Cubs find themselves with a record of 6-13 in year one of the rebuilding phase of the Theo Epstein era. This dreadfully poor, yet not unexpected, start to the season has many fans in an uproar. They want better baseball. They want winning baseball. They do not understand how this team can be playing so poorly and are looking lost on the field game in and game out. They demand answers and they want people’s heads. They want a better team and apparently they want the finished product now as opposed to a few years from now as the plan currently calls for. As I pointed out in a blog two weeks ago, fans claimed that they were willing to have patience, but apparently not enough to allow them to survive a season worse than they thought they would get. After all, they were only told to expect a bad season, not a really bad season.
Looking at how we have reached the record we are at, I can understand why fans are far more upset than they should be, especially knowing that this would be a season of very little joy. If the bullpen did not blow a few games late and if the offense was able to be a bit more consistent the team could be much better and could even have a winning record at this point in the early season, and fans would not be quite as unhappy as they are right now. Then again, if the Cubs were not in a full rebuild mode they would have ventured into the free agent market more than they did and likely signed more prominent and proven veteran talent to help them contend. However, spending money on high priced veteran talent has no place in a rebuild, not even in the bullpen.
With the team being in the early stages of a rebuild, fans must accept the fact that there are going to be growing pains with the players and management. You are going to have to accept that some players are going to struggle as they grow into the players they are expected to be. You are also going to have to accept that Dale Sveum, a rookie in his own regard, is also learning to manage the game at the Major League level. Sure, he has had a handful of games here or there as the main guy, but never a full season where he is in complete control. He is also going to have growing pains and will make a mistake here or there that a veteran manager would not make. The hope of Epstein and Jed Hoyer is that once the team is ready to compete, these players and managers will have grown into the players and manager they believe they can be.
Even though the team is in a full rebuild that does not mean that they will immediately call up every kid in their system that has promise. I cannot tell you how many times a day I hear a fan calling for this player or that player to be benched until they are traded so a younger player can take his place on the field on a regular basis. What these fans do not seem to realize is that the slumping players that are the target of these fans anger currently have little to no value. Marlon Byrd was a rare exception of a slumping player who was desired by another team. More often than not, if you want a team to trade a player who is either blocking a young prospect or is slumping so badly that they are hurting the team’s chances of winning, benching said player will not do anything to increase other team’s interest in them at all. You need to allow them the time in order for them to get on a hot streak and return to the player they are known to be to strike another team’s interest. That may not sit well with fans, but the honest truth is the only players other teams may actually want at this point are the very ones that you do not want to trade.
If these players are benched and are not giving the playing time to turn their season around they will become even more untradeable, thus keeping them as a useless bench player until their contract runs out. Unfortunately this conundrum is a double edged sword. Look at the situation with Steve Clevenger and Geovany Soto for instance. Fans want Clevenger to get more consistent playing time behind the plate and have seen enough of Soto almost demanding him to be traded. Unfortunately if you want him traded, he is going to have to be show cased to other teams. Sure, they already know who he is and what kind of a player he is, but answer these questions. If you were a General Manager of another team would you trade for him with how he is performing? Would you want him starting for your ball club? If your answer is no to either of these questions, what makes you think any other team would be willing to do so?
Other than being blocked by underperforming players who are currently unmovable, there is another very big, and much more important reason why the kids are not with the big club yet. As Rice has said previously in his own blogs, there are service time restrictions which are keeping the players fans want on the team now, in the minors to continue to develop. Epstein and Hoyer love managing player’s contracts, soaking up as much service time as possible from them for the cheapest amount of money. By waiting until the end of May, they will be able to squeeze that seventh year out of the youthful players who they are hoping will be the prized jewels of the rebuild and key pieces for the clubs they hope to be in serious contention in the next few years.
Look at Brett Jackson for example, fans were sure that he would get the call as soon as Byrd was traded; but he was not for a number of reasons. For one, he needs to raise his batting average as he is currently hitting in the low .200s in a hitters league. He is also striking out far more than you would like to see out of your minor league talent. Once they get to the major league club they will be facing tougher talent, and those strike out numbers will only increase. He may very well be up in a month’s time and learn on the job, but do not be surprised if he is held in the minors until the September call ups. He will be up when Epstein and Hoyer feel he is ready, and will not need to be sent back to the minors due to poor performance.
Anthony Rizzo, the other young stud in Iowa has another problem blocking his path to Wrigley Field. His name is Bryan LaHair and he is playing very well right now. Fans will say move him to the outfield, but he is not athletic enough to play right field, so he would have to take over in left field which would suit fans just fine. But then you have the double edged sword issue with Alfonso Soriano. Much like with LaHair, he is not athletic enough to play right field, so he would be without a position. Good luck trading him then. No, Soriano will stay in left field, Rizzo will stay in Iowa and LaHair will stay at first base; at least until he crashes and burns or is included in a trade. At the moment though, with the way he is performing, there is no rush to bring Rizzo up and that sits perfectly well with Epstein and Hoyer.
Remember, many of you wanted a complete rebuild and that is what you are getting. You will not see a team in rebuild mode spend a ton of money until they are close to contending again. Even then, they will likely only spend the money on a player or two they believe are the final pieces needed to complete the team and bring a World Series title home. You should be in no way shape or form surprised or angry when a rebuilding team (especially one that is in the first year of a rebuild) sucks as badly as the Cubs are now. Be disappointed in close losses, sure, that is natural. But being angry or surprised by how poorly this year’s team is performing is nonsensical.