It is April and the Chicago Cubs will begin playing baseball in order to cause misery and despair to legions of beer-swilling mustachioed mustard monsters. For several years, the Cubs have been irrelevant: the team has been stripped of competent baseball players in exchange for prospects and allowed to sink to appropriately Cub-like depths in a shameless tanking exercise. Ticket prices, of course, remained among the highest in baseball even as team president Theo Epstein all but announced OUR STRATEGY IS INTENTIONAL INEPT FLOUNDERING GIVE US YOUR MONEY.
It's equally exciting as a Cubs fan and infuriating as a fan of baseball teams trying to win baseball games and a person who has foolishly given money to a Ricketts that this plan appears to be working. The Return of the Cubs to Contention is a major baseball story this spring. The team is a trendy pick to contend for a wildcard spot; enough maniacs have descended upon Las Vegas to give them absurdly low odds to win the World Series.
That is insane enough to be the plot of one of those
bachelor parties gone bad movies but instead of
inadvertently murdering a croupier or getting in
too deep with an organized crime syndicate or falling
victim to a crooked casino with complicated gambling
games that are just made up on the spot but all called
"baccarat" in order to fool unsophisticated rubes the
protagonists decide to put actual hard-won dollars,
AMERICAN dollars for the love of god, on the Cubs to
win the championship of Major League Baseball
The optimism has come with the development of young players. Anthony Rizzo had a breakout year by learning to hit left-handed pitching. Starlin Castro returned to the All-Star game after a year as one of baseball's worst everyday players. Jorge Soler came up to give major league pitching the battering he once threatened to unleash upon an entire dugout's worth of baseball players. And Javier Baez, glorious Baez, joined Cubs in August. Baez, a mercurial baseball maestro whose potential to alter the Earth's tide with his tater-mashing is held in check only by his complete inability to successfully hit a ball with his bat. Consider this: Baez came to the plate 229 times last season. Of those, he put the ball in play 36 times. Nine of those 36 hits left the yard; that's a dinger percentage of 25% and if that isn't a real stat it should be. He also struck out 95 times, more than 40% of his total plate appearances. This sample size is so small that baseball stats people would regard it like Vigo the Carpathian regards ghostbusters, but still.
A thorough analysis of advanced batting statistics (click to enlarge)
And, after a couple of weeks superprospect Kris Bryant will appear as soon as he has passed a bizarre and arbitrary deadline that will allow the Cubs to keep him on a rookie payscale for an additional season, which the Cubs have justified by saying he needs to work on his fielding with the subtlety of a CBS sitcom character ordering a footlong hotdog in mixed company. The Cubs have a number of heralded prospect bats waiting in the wings, but Bryant has eclipsed them all by demolishing minor league pitching last year and going on a spring training rampage that left a trail of baseball carcasses in his wake.
The Cubs were not content to sit around with their exciting young team. They made additional not fucking around moves. First they signed America's Favorite Cool Grandpa Joe Maddon to manage the team. Maddon unexpectedly became available when Tampa GM Andrew Friedman bolted for the sunny skies and infinite money piles of Los Angeles. The Cubs fired first-year manager Rick Renteria and signed Maddon in a round of baseball skulduggery that has the Rays filing tampering charges and (presumably) Renteria plotting vengeance in smoky tents filled with medieval topographical maps. The Ricketts brought to the Cubs a healthy dose of intrigue: Theo Epstein's Second Clandestine Voyage from Boston, the Wooing of Joe Maddon, the Betrayal of Renteria, and the War of the Spanish Succession.
This time, bereft of gorilla suits, Theo Epstein fled
Boston in the disguise of Lenin disguised as a
Guy Who Isn't Lenin
Then the Cubs signed Jon Lester, the first big-time free agent pitcher of the Epstein era (let's forget Edwin Jackson exists). Lester was brought in as the ace who can one day anchor a champion pitching staff. Not to be fatalistic, but given the success rate of big time ace pitcher free agent signings and the involvement of the Chicago Cubs, there has never been a larger Sword of Damocles hovering over a baseball pitcher; there is an Aircraft Carrier of Damocles regularly sending squadrons of Damocles bomber jets at Lester's shoulder and cruciate ligaments.
For several seasons Cubs games were not only meaningless in the existential sense of all sporting events being a trifling distraction from societal problems and I don't even an own a TV, but meaningless even within baseball's limited universe. You could slate the Cubs into last place in April and find them comfortably resting there undisturbed in September. The only mild pleasure from Cubs games came from the potential of watching Cubs ineptly run into each other. Now, even if they don't make the playoffs, the Cubs are at last interesting and it is not just because they will be playing their games in a dilapidated hellhole.
The Cubs' renovations of Wrigley Field are behind schedule. This makes sense because the Cubs are philosophically behind schedule. The outfield bleachers will spend this season as pits, barren baseball wastelands filled with dirt, more than a century of stale beer, and, by the end of the season, I assume roaming bands of abandoned prospects attempting to build a civilization out of sunflower seeds and fungo bats.
Theo Epstein, wearing a crown fashioned out of forbidden Old Style cans and Jed Hoyer, wearing pinstriped epaulettes, will begin to use the pits as part of hardline contract negotiations. Edwin Jackson will be the first to be DFP'd-- designated for pits, forced to rely on his wits, charm, and ineffective fastball to negotiate his way through the numerous pit civilizations. He will team with a man once known as Brian LaHair but now goes by his pit name Gargantuous The Hair who knows the ways of the pit but may have his own agenda. But the greatest horror in the Pit does not come from the warring factions of pit dwellers or the pit pits or the festering bites of vienna hotdogs mutated into sentience by decades of proximity to urinal trough organisms. No, it is the Toweled One, a mysterious man who stalks silently at night. He wears ragged pants, a tattered jersey with only the letters "ior" visible and a cap pulled low over his face. Severed elbow ligaments dangle from his belt. Only one man has escaped and he has been driven mad; he screams about Tommy John surgery and teeth before becoming transfixed with fear and the only words he'll mutter are "in Dusty we trusty."
The Cubs' new Special Adviser to the General Manager on Pits,
Thunderdomes, and Mutant Outlands
The Cubs are also installing a videoboard this year.
The Cubs will be improved this year. This is because they have decided to use actual major league baseball players. In addition to the ballyhooed prospects, the Cubs brought in on-base specialist Dexter Fowler, and Miguel Montero, a solid defensive catcher and maker of intense yell-faces. Montero is also adept at pitch-framing, an art of openly deceiving umpires that is an acceptable part of baseball unlike attempting to steal signs, which is punishable by having a baseball thrown at your face because baseball is a violent murder sport invented in the nineteenth century by train robbery gangs.
Early baseball action: a strikeout
Yet, while it's exciting to have a baseball team that aims for more than a top draft pick, it's probably a bit premature to assume they will make the playoffs. For one, they play in the same division as the dangerous Pirates and the grimly inevitable St. Louis Cardinals. Other awful teams, like the Padres and the Marlins will also contend for the Wild Card. Fortunately, I can't imagine either of those teams ever causing misery to Cubs fans.
Secondly, the Cubs' prospects, as good has they have been, are still prospects. Soler probably won't continue his blistering pace. Baez may never learn to hit major league pitching. Kris Bryant has played exactly as many big league games as you or me, assuming that Carlos Zambrano did not just google himself for 1,000 pages. Pitchers Jake Arrieta and Justin Hammel may not replicate last season's breakouts. Joe Maddon's honeymoon will end under the thunderous echo of 10,000 guys with mustaches and a Chicago sports press manned by lumbering men writing the words "wins=winning games=winners yes?" in their notebooks next to sketches of sausage products.
And yes, the Cubs are still the Cubs. Stewards of a century-plus World Series drought, compilers of losing seasons, standard-bearers of sporting ineptitude. Perhaps, the Cubs will win one year, but it is equally possible they continue to lose until baseball transforms into another sport entirely after Wrigley Field is taken over by the pit people and baseball quickly transforms into an inevitable future death sport involving bullpen cars and pitching machines. The Cubs have gouged fans and reached for taxpayers' wallets. They have sent forth armies of stonegloved fielders, strikeout mongers, belly itchers, and Junior Lake against professional baseballers, they have intentionally made a mockery of team whose name and everything it stands for is already a mockery and in 2015 they have attacked us with the absolute worst thing with which to afflict a Cubs fan: hope. You maniacs.