Monday, April 4, 2016

The Chicago Cubs Will Not Win the World Series


A storm cloud has appeared over major league baseball, as sure a mark of impending doom as the sport can muster: the Chicago Cubs are overwhelming favorites to win the 2016 World Series.  Fortified by lucrative tanking, using the Ricketts family's war chest to bring in free agents, and riding an improbable Cardinal-vanquishing playoff run to last year's National League Championship Series, this could be The Year.  And by invoking The Year and putting together one of baseball's best teams on paper, the Cubs have merely summoned the Four Goat-men of the Apocalypse: Ligament injuries, Player Regression, Cardinals Bullshit, and The Entire History of the Chicago Cubs Since The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

Baseball has long overthrown the anti-intellectual chewing tobacco luddism of its past.  Now it is the purview of lawnmower men who sit in their reconstructed mother's basement front offices.  This is an advance.  It took decades to convince the Tim McCarvers of the world that players who make fewer outs are more valuable than players who knock the ball in play and reach safely discounting the times they walked to first base and ignoring sacrifice bunts and flies except in certain situations where they are not sacrificial enough as determined by a person who has seen the play once from a hole in the scoreboard which was good enough to beat the forces of the Kaiser, damn you.  Now, baseball executives become implicated in high-tech hacking scandals involving typing "Eckstein123" into a terminal, shouting "I'm in," and mining valuable baseball data to their own twisted ends.

Cardinals executive Christopher Correa prepares to infiltrate the Astros' 
intricate computer network

Baseball analytics scoffs at the type of things you will read in this blog post because they are unscientific hokum based on recency bias, coincidence, and full-blown delusional pessimism.  Every season is a unique event; these Cubs have nothing in common with the century of failed Cub teams except their uniforms, Wrigley Field, and the same legions of demented drunken mustaches nasally honking about the traffic on the Dan Ryan.  At the same time, it seems like the most probable route to a Cubs victory would not involve heavy preseason expectations inspiring myriad panics during a 162-game season and one of the most fraught playoff systems in professional sports.  The Cubs gave us the most delightfully unexpected seasons last year; this season will play out like a Blimp of Damocles hovering over the stadium.


Theo Epstein dismantled the Cubs.  They lost bunches of games.  They flipped any remotely competent player for prospects and arcane spoils like international bonus slot money and sandwich picks.  This garbage team showed up in last place filled with a bunch of rail-hopping barnstormers one beard away from the House of David and this plan, to the detriment to all that is fun in professional sports, worked.  The fruits of the Cubs' drafts, trades, and forays into the Sydney Greenstreet world of international free agency came up last year and they can sock baseballs to Mars.

The Cubs arrived a year ahead of schedule.  Addison Russell, the slick-gloved shortstop, appeared to replace an injured Tommy LaStella.  Kris Bryant, the most ballyhooed Cubs prospect since Mark Prior, appeared amid a flourish of union grievances.  Kyle Schwarber debuted in June and took his place as the prototypical stump-shaped lefty slugger, awing spectators with his power to smash baseballs into the stratosphere and his endearingly bumbling attempts to do anything else related to baseball.  Javier Baez and Jorge Soler spent most of the season injured and ineffective only reappear in the postseason as the revolutionary vanguard against Cardinal hegemony.

The Cubs have nevertheless made some sweeping changes.  They traded the enigmatic Starlin Castro to the Yankees in exchange for reliever Adam Warren.  Castro spent his entire career as Cubs fans' alternating symbol of hope and scapegoat for despair.  During that time, Castro lost.  He lost as the only cornerstone player while the journeymen and organizational filler around him disintegrated into trades, designations for assignment, and far-flung baseball leagues around the world.  The capricious whims of BABIP guided his success: in the years when his balls found holes in the defense he was an All-Star; when they did not he ranked as one of the worst players in all of baseball.  He never acquitted himself well to short, accumulating a staggering array of ludicrous errors comparable to the beer league softball player who appears in jeans, immediately in over his head.

Kyle Hendricks's screams of "Starlin, Starlin STARLIN" while an oblivious Castro castigates
 himself for an error fall upon deaf ears.  It is too late

By the middle of the season, Castro found himself on the bench.  Then, Maddon moved him to second.  Something switched.  Castro became one of the Cubs' best hitters in September.  Beat writers filled column inches about the effect of his change of position and approach.  Cubs fans cheered him, bolstered by his walkup music.  Now, after years as the face of some of the shittiest teams in the Cubs' woebegone history, Castro is out.  He was never a Theo Epstein guy.  His mercurial bat did not fit with the Cubs' patience-strikeouts-and-dingers regimen.  He has a chance to start over with as a change-of-scenery castoff in the one media market less forgiving than Chicago.  This is how baseball works in the twenty-first century.

The Cubs replaced him with a bonafide World Series champion.  Maddon favorite Ben Zobrist plays nearly every position, switch hits, gets on base, has a little pop, and is basically pretty good at every facet of baseball.  He has two main drawbacks: at 34, those skills may begin to diminish and Chicago authorities remain concerned about an outbreak of Zobrism in North Side neighborhoods as Zobrists menace the city with their occult obsession with wispy beards and advanced fielding metrics.

The Cubs raided longtime nemesis St. Louis for key contributors.  Pitcher John Lackey, last seen screaming at a baseball after giving up a demoralizing NLDS hit to Jason Hammel, has vaulted over the Mississippi River.  Lackey, a grizzled 37 year-old, hopes to add stability to the Cubs' rotation after a surprisingly fine season for the Cards.  More importantly, the Cubs absconded with "Trader J" Jason Heyward.  Heyward came over to the Cardinals as a one-year rental from the Braves then rejected their offer to join the Cubs in one of the finest days in the history of sports internet.  Heyward initially projected as the Cubs' center fielder.  He would replace Dexter Fowler, who had left the Cubs as a free agent and agreed to sign with the Orioles.  Instead, Fowler spurned them and appeared out of nowhere in Cubs camp.  The Cubs' offseason was essentially an opera featuring the aria "Trader: The Homonym of Sports Perfidy."


The Cubs brought in Jon Lester in for $155 million.  You can recite that number by heart because "they paid $155 million for a guy who can't throw to first?" became appended to his name, like an honorary title for a medieval king.  Lester is a fine pitcher and a comical disaster in everything else relating to baseball.  In his first appearance, a nationally-televised season-opening rivalry game, Lester's inability to throw to first base became as evident to fans as Wrigley Field's inability to accommodate their urine.  He cannot hit, his fielding remains suspect, and he demands the services of catcher David Ross, whose batting average is "he calls a good game out there."  Yet, by the end of the season, Lester scraped out a hit.  He laid down some competent bunts.  He hit a home run in spring training to a pitcher who may or may not have been a Cubs intern in disguise.

Lester may have been the big story in camp last year, but he quickly became overshadowed by Jake Arrieta's unworldly Cy Young season.  Arrieta, acquired in a scrap-heap deal with the repeatedly victimized Baltimore Orioles, turned himself into a better pitcher with the Cubs.  Then, in the second half of the season, he became Death Incarnate.  No one scored off Arrieta.  He gained the ability to control the ball with his mind.  He threw a no-hitter then changed into mustache-themed footie pajamas.  He sparked a donnybrook in the Wild Card playoff game when he hit two Pirates, took one in the buttocks, and started a bench-clearing that got out of control enough for Pirates' first baseman Sean Rodriguez to pummel a Gatorade cooler with a Zambranoan fury.  It was the greatest half a season since the deadball era. 

Rodriguez plans revenge in this year's Gatorade Kumite

The Cubs rode Lester, Arrieta, and a host of reclamation projects and junkballers to the third-best ERA in the majors.  The bullpen contributed; Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, and Hector Rondon formed a dependable late-game trio, and the Cubs turned a conveyor belt of scrap-heap starters like Clayton Richard, Trevor Cahill, and archery mime Fernando Rodney into a shockingly effective unit.  They kept most of it together, adding extra arms like Adam Warren and Rex Brothers, the King of All Brothers.  There is, however, nothing more volatile than a major league pitching staff.  Arm injuries can claim anyone at any time, aces will turn to meatball artists with no warning, pitchers will move in and out of the lineup at seemingly-random intervals.  The Cubs' bullpen will look shockingly different by the end of the season.  Let us hope that Arrieta, Lester, and Lackey remain in place.


There are several rational reasons why the Cubs will not win the World Series.  For one, the baseball season is endless and unpredictable.  Players get hurt, players come out of nowhere, great players play like absolute dogshit, relief pitching is essentially determined by oracle bones, players change teams, BABIP commands the game like a vengeful god, the banishment of a thirteen-year-old bat boy causes widespread locker room revolt, the playoffs are a completely random confluence of baseball events.  Yet, this is not the place for rational thoughts.  This is a place for exalted Cubs miserablism unbound by the physical laws of the universe.

The Cubs are not cursed by a disgruntled goat-owner or vengeful baseball spirits.  They are, however, confounded by very real pressure fueled by a century of futility, where winning a dumb baseball trophy has acquired life-and-death stakes as their title drought has seen generations of fans to the grave.  The Cubs' identity is wrapped up in futility; every playoff run drags with it the combined weight of previous failure amplified by media into a cacophony.  A hypothetical Cubs World Series appearance would require a three-hour special to get in the full litany of Cubs' ineptitude.

BUCK: 1908

The Cubs at least seem aware of this.  Joe Maddon's slogan for the season is "Embrace the Target," which sounds either like a stealthy conduit for branded content or an extremely Dolph Lundgren direct-to-VHS movie from the mid-90s.  Maddon has attempted to ameliorate the pressure on the Cubs by turning Spring Training into a literal circus involving clowns, mimes, a shredding guitar player accompanying the sound system, and tiny baby cubs.

And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears in Cubs Spring .
Training, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only 
the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as 
a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored 
interest in food

The Cubs still play in a thunderdome division against the Pirates and the Cardinals. You may think the Cubs have weakened the Cardinals by stealing two of their best players from last season, but that is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Cardinals work. There is no Cardinals team more dangerous than one that has increased access to scrappy call-ups that you've never heard of. As we speak, Cardinals scientists have altered Eckstein DNA to make a ballplayer smaller, weaker, and more gritty in a reverse Captain America process to create a feeble toddler whose sole MLB hit will be a walkoff against the Cubs. 

 And there is no way to dabble in baseball mysticism without mentioning the San Francisco Giants. Since 2010, they alternated World Series victories with playoff absences. By their third championship in 2014, the Giants' Even Year Bullshit has been canonized in baseball lore. The Giants signed star pitcher Johnny Cueto. But, in a move of greater concern for the Cubs, they have also signed former Cub Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija's value remains unknown; he followed an All-Star half-season for the Cubs with a dismal season for the White Sox. Regardless of how Samardzija pitches, he is destined for a high-leverage start against the Cubs late in the season or the playoffs where he shuts them down as written in the Scrolls of Hypothetical Baseball Misery. 

 Baseball's playoffs are lightning rods for fluky horseshit. The Royals won the World Series partly by turning themselves into an engine of chaos, slapping the ball all over the field and daring the Mets not to do the single dumbest thing possible at any given time, and the strategy worked. Should the Cubs make the playoffs, they could avoid insane pratfalls. Or they could well fall victim to a gaffe currently outside of the realm of baseball possibility by running the bases backwards or having a ball ricochet off another ball in the bullpen causing havoc as multiple balls appear on the field or somehow allowing every fielder to simultaneously collide, their I got it cries lost to a howling October wind. It is entirely possible that this is The Year. I hope it is. But there is nothing more Cubs than squandering this loaded, young squad into another century of heartbreak and despair. 

 Rejoice! Baseball is back.