hot stove things

Exorcising the Failures and Fishmongers of Chicago Cubs Past

The Chicago Cubs haven't won a World Series since William Howard Taft was President, and came by their failures honestly. Now that all seems to be changing.

by Steven Goldman
Dec 16 2015, 9:29pm

Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the future of the Chicago Cubs, it seems fair to worry about Hank Borowy. Not literally, as Borowy has been dead for over 10 years now, but more as a metaphor for a kind of hope that breaches the murky surface of despair and just as quickly subsides. It seems unlikely this will happen to the Cubs, who emerged as one of the best teams in baseball last year even if they stopped short of the World Series. They've rebuilt smartly and have improved hugely this offseason, but given that we are talking about a championship drought going back to the Taft administration, a little paranoia is inevitable.

Hank Borowy was a pitcher for the New York Yankees in 1945, when the team decided that the 29-year-old was a sore-armed has-been and sold him to the Cubs in July. On arriving in Chicago, Borowy immediately turned into Superman, and (anticipating Rick Sutcliffe 39 years later) pitched them to the pennant. He threw a shutout in Game 1 of the World Series. When he started Game 7, however, the Yankees were suddenly proved right: Borowy failed to record an out (and would put up an ERA of 4.43 for the remaining half-dozen years of his career). It helped that the Cubs, in their Cubalicious way, used him on one day's rest after a four-inning relief stint in Game 6, which itself followed his Game 5 start the day before. These were different times, but not that different.

If you squint hard, you can see a little of Jake Arrieta in that story. He, too, doesn't have the longest track record of pitching at his 2015 level, when, at 29, he pitched a shutout in his first postseason start and then ran out of gas. The parallels almost certainly end there, though; so much has changed. So while this column is about the Cubs, it is also all about nerves—and fish. Wholesale.

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Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer aren't fish vendors, and that's a good thing. In the 1930s, at the same time teams like the Yankees, the Cardinals, and the Reds were benefiting from the work of professional executives like Ed Barrow, Branch Rickey, and Larry MacPhail, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley turned over control of his front office to William Walker, whose primary occupation was a fish wholesaler. Sadly for Walker and those who cared about the team he'd been handed, any perceived parallels between the fish trade and baseball didn't exist.

Well, except in one way: the rapid decay of fish makes a decent metaphor for the shelf lives of the best Cubs teams to emerge during the team's long exile. When Dallas Green put together the surprise 1984 NL East winners, Ryne Sandberg was only 24 and the National League's MVP, but several other players had odometers that had rolled over and the starting rotation lacked depth (two words: Steve Trout). The strong 1989 team would soon have to replace flash-in-the-pan players like Dwight Smith and Rookie of the Year Jerome Walton. Jim Riggleman's 1998 starting rotation was mostly hypothetical. Dusty Baker pitched the arms off his rotation in 2003. Of Lou Piniella's two playoff teams,,the 2008 club pitched well enough to deserve a grander fate than being quickly dispatched by the Dodgers, but in any case that team was a soap bubble, too. Ryan Dempster was not the kind of pitcher who was going to give you ace-level performance every year, Rich Harden a hypothetical ace who couldn't stay healthy, and the lineup was a veteran affair with a few too many Ryan Theriot-shaped holes in it.

This year's team does not look like that. Designed by Epstein and Hoyer with methods far closer to Branch Rickey's than Red Lobster's, it is young, improving, and already much better than it was when the season ended. Next year, Addison Russell will be 22, Kyle Schwarber 23, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler 24, Anthony Rizzo 25. Of the big offseason additions, second baseman/everywhere Ben Zobrist is 35 and righty starter John Lackey is 37, but Jason Heyward, signed last week to an eight-year contract with as many outs as a politician's promise, will only be 26. If the Cubs farm teams aren't incubating any more potential MVP types like Bryant, they still have a fair number of quality prospects on the way. Depth, for a change, is not the worry.

This is a new idea in Cubdom, building a well-balanced team around youth instead of hoping to get one more year out of Ron Cey. That's not to say there aren't things that could go wrong with the position players. The drunken moth defense Schwarber showed in the playoffs might be too prohibitive a cost to pay for his power if the team wants to keep him in left. Soler's postseason explosion (.474 with three homers in seven games) after a disappointing season might prove to have been just one of those things, or Bryant's strikeouts (199 in 650 plate appearances) could eat his production—his .275 average required a .378 batting average on balls in play, fifth highest in the majors. Of course, the winter is still young and more changes might yet come, moves that might include the departure of Soler and the addition of a center fielder (incumbent Dexter Fowler is a free agent), which would allow Heyward to play his "natural" position of right field. The Cubs could get a little older, or they could get younger still. They will probably get even better.

Heyward presently derives more value from base-running and defense than his bat, and has a good chance of maintaining his strong glovework, barring bad luck. While every player is different, a perusal of the outfielders who have posted Heyward's brand of elite defensive statistics shows the potential for durability. Andruw Jones had his last Heyward-grade season at 30, and if Heyward holds to the same pattern, the next five years of his career are covered—and he'll hit an opt-out before then. Brian Jordan had his last big defensive season at 34, and Larry Walker was rated a strong defender in right field into his mid-30s. If a team has to pay any free agent for eight years, a player of Jason Heyward's type (and age) is about as good a bet as there is.

No, if this version of the Cubs fails to endure, it won't be because of the position players. More likely it will be the work of the ol' Curse of Hank Borowy That You've Never Heard of Before But Is No Less Effective a Curse for Flying Below the Radar. It's not going out on much of a limb to forecast some regression from Arrieta. He put up a 0.75 ERA in over 100 innings in the second half of 2015, and no one does that. The complete list of pitchers who have had a sub-1.00 ERA over half a season is, in its entirety, Jake Arrieta and three guys from World War I who did it once each, one of whom was Walter freakin' Johnson. Put another way, in 2015 Arrieta had 21 starts in which he pitched six or more innings and allowed one or zero earned runs. Zack Greinke did that this year, as well. Per Baseball Reference, it's been done just 18 other times since 1914. Grover Cleveland Alexander is the only pitcher to do it more than once (in fact he got there four times), and he's been dead a long time.

When you recognize a fellow well-bearded man. — Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Arrieta could almost double his 2015 ERA and still be a Cy Young candidate next year. That would, however, put more pressure on the rest of the pitching staff. Lackey, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel have their virtues, and Lester in particular can be quite good at times, but none are, well, Grover Cleveland Alexander. As for the bullpen, unless we're talking about the Kansas City Royals—and if you take Greg Holland's Tommy John surgery into account, then you can include them, too—bullpens come and go without a lot of predictability.

It's the starting rotation that nags if Arrieta slides; somehow, despite some great draft picks and canny trades, the Cubs don't have that 22-year-old proto-ace to go with their young future home-run leaders and potential MVP winners. With the full and unfair benefit of hindsight, we can only ponder what might have been if the Cub had used the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft on Jose Fernandez (taken by the Marlins at no. 11) or Sonny Gray (to the A's at No. 18) instead of Javier Baez. That executive team isn't on the job anymore for a reason.

At last Tuesday's introductory press conference, Heyward said he didn't have to be sold on joining the Cubs. "For me, a winning attitude and culture and the fact that this group is such a young group and I could grow myself with it," Heyward said, was what moved him to commit despite the Cubs not coming up with the most cash. It's amazing to think that the Cubs, long a stodgy and neglected franchise, are now young, hip, sexy, and smart. The Cubs seem long removed from the time when ownership essentially turned the team over to the manager of a Long John Silver's, but luck still has its part to play before the past has been truly disowned. They have as good a chance at it now as they've ever had. In December, that's all any team can ask.