In the end, the Cubs made neither the trade that would improve them immediately nor the trade that would diminish them in the short term but improve them in the not-so-distant future. They lost their bull pen closer and the left side of their infield from last year, and they lost their best player for this season's stretch drive, but they're winding up in almost exactly the same position as they did last season: around .500, within shouting distance of a playoff spot without really threatening to seize one. The Cubs simply are, but that continues to be enough for their fans.
Last Saturday we went out to Wrigley Field for our last close look at the Cubs this year. (We may return--in fact, we're almost certain to return for the festive final weekend--but not to take the Cubs seriously as a baseball team.) The Cubs sold 36,290 tickets for the game, and about 25,000 people actually turned up on a cold, blustery afternoon in which it drizzled shortly before the first pitch. The Cubs lost, but that didn't seem to ruin anybody's day. When the Cubs win all is well, and when they lose a fan still gets to hear that satisfying "pock" as somebody stomps a cup high in the grandstand and the echo rings off the upper deck. It's a sound we're familiar with from our childhood, the sound that accompanied Jack Brickhouse on The Tenth Inning, and no doubt pre-TV generations of Cubs fans were raised on it on radio as well. It says something about the exuberance and endurance of Cubs fans that they not only sit calmly as their gonfalon bubble perpetually bursts but also provide the sound effect. If team management ever gets around to compiling a Sounds of Wrigley Field album, with "Hey, Hey, Holy Mackerel" and "It's a Beautiful Day for a Ball Game" and, in a more contemporary vein, Van Halen's "Jump," it should end with the sound of cups being popped in the grandstand--a sound as plaintive, as mournful, and as comforting as the dogs barking and the train whistle wailing that close the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.
The Cubs reached their high-water mark this season, as measured in games over .500, at 10-6. They bottomed out at 21-31. The 11-25 stretch that began in late April sank their hopes for the season, the worst sequence being the last ten games of that period--the Cubs lost nine of them. They eventually were able to scramble back to .500, but not to compete seriously for the playoffs. So any postmortem this year--even one that takes place while the patient is still breathing--should start with that early swoon.
The obvious conclusion is that the afflicted organ was the pitching staff. Steve Trachsel, the Cubs' worst starter a year ago, returned to his 1994 form to place among the league leaders in earned run average. The Cubs' four other starters, however, suffered through a hideous early season, and only Jaime Navarro recovered to put up decent numbers. Navarro pitched last Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies and looked good--allowing for the inevitable attention-deficit disorder that afflicts players on also-ran baseball teams. He took a scoreless shutout into the fourth inning, when he promptly allowed a triple to Kevin Stocker on a fastball, then grooved two straight sliders to Gregg Jefferies and Benito Santiago. Jefferies doubled off the right-field wall, and Santiago smacked one onto Waveland to give the Phils a 3-0 lead on the way to a 6-2 victory. To his credit, Navarro's loss ended an eight-game winning streak and left him with an admirable 15-10 record. But at one point Navarro was 2-6 this season, meaning that he contributed to the Cubs' early woes as much as anyone.
In marked contrast, Frank Castillo, Jim Bullinger, and Kevin Foster, the Cubs' overachieving numbers two through four starters last year, kept contributing to the team's woes throughout this year--that is, when they weren't exiled to the bull pen, like Bullinger, or to the minors, like Foster. All three came into this week with ERAs above 5.00. Their failure crippled the team for the season, but it's also created the most serious problem for the near future. How does any baseball team fill three-fifths of its starting staff over a single winter? Many people on and around the team wondered why the Cubs didn't start rebuilding right away by making a better attempt to obtain Denny Neagle of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who eventually found his way to the world-champion Atlanta Braves.
The answer, of course, is that the Pirates almost certainly were demanding either pitching phenom Kerry Wood or young third baseman Kevin Orie--if not both--in any trade. Wood is a 19-year-old who has been compared to Nolan Ryan; he throws in the mid-90s and is said to have an excellent curve as well. He suffered through some elbow tenderness this season, but still placed third in the Class A Florida State League with 136 strikeouts. He is the Cubs' future, although it probably will be at least two years before we even see him at Wrigley Field and another season or two after that before he's settled--if, of course, his arm holds out. Orie, meanwhile, made great strides this year. A six-foot-four-inch third baseman who likewise has suffered injuries in the minors, he hit well enough at AA Orlando to be promoted to AAA Iowa, one step from the majors. Then, however, he separated his shoulder, which deprived us of a chance to see him perform as a September call-up. He almost certainly will be pegged for Iowa next year unless he has a marvelous spring training, and even then the Cubs would be wary of repeating the ballyhooed-to-bust Gary Scott phenomenon at third base.
So in a nutshell the Cubs' dilemma is this: What does the team do until Orie and Wood arrive? These are unfinished minor leaguers, after all, not known quantities, and it's best to remember that even vaunted left-field power prospect Brooks Kieschnick saw his scouting report go from "can't miss" to "doubtful" when his batting average dropped and his fielding failed to improve this season at Iowa. The Cubs can't just wait. Do they invest heavily in free-agent starters, or show patience with Castillo, Bullinger, and Foster in hopes that they'll return to form? Do they stick with Turk Wendell as bull pen ace, or bring in an established closer? Actually, Wendell pitched well in the role this year after replacing Doug Jones (we could've told Ed Lynch that signing would be a mistake, and in fact we did; if only we had heeded our own advice during our Rotisserie League draft). While the Cubs' 31 one-run losses would seem to point to a deficiency in the bull pen, the team's relievers actually pitched pretty well.
No, it was a lack of hitting and base runners that led to the Cubs' poor record in one-run games this year. The Cubs were 13th in the National League in batting average, and in on-base percentage ahead of only the Los Angeles Dodgers, who play their home games in the much more pitcher-friendly Chavez Ravine. The Cubs were fourth in homers, led by Sammy Sosa's 40 in an injury-shortened season, but ninth in walks, which averages out to their middle-of-the-pack sixth-place finish in runs scored.
Pointing the finger at culprits, however, is difficult. Brian McRae was on his way to setting a career high in walks, and his .363 on-base percentage as of last weekend was decent if not great for a leadoff man. What's more, he brought classic good looks to the team with his high socks and low stirrups. Mark Grace had a team-high .336 batting average and a .402 on-base percentage, though his lack of power was again bothersome. Ryne Sandberg returned more of a mistake hitter than ever, still befuddled by the good breaking ball. Into last weekend he was hitting only .234, and he played a large part in the Cubs' early swoon, as manager Jim Riggleman kept him too long at the top of the order in hopes that his batting average would come around. Even so, Sandberg hit for power throughout the year, and last Saturday he punished a flat slider by hitting his 24th homer of the season, which along with his 87 runs batted in led National League second basemen. (He added his 88th RBIs the following night in a 6-1 loss to the Phils that all but crushed the team's meager playoff hopes.) Luis Gonzalez had 12 homers and 72 RBIs in left field and Leo Gomez 17 homers and 56 RBIs at third base, both while being platooned on occasion. And everyone fielded well: the Cubs' .983 fielding percentage led the league into last weekend, and through 147 games they were the only NL team with fewer than 100 errors on the season.
They make for a likable team--Sandberg and Grace, McRae and catcher Scott Servais, Navarro and Wendell and Trachsel--and they're fundamentally sound. Yet the question should be asked, how many of them are championship-caliber players, the best at their positions? That was once true of Sandberg, but not anymore. Grace and McRae are both good, but neither is going to carry a team for long stretches the way a Jeff Bagwell or a Barry Bonds can. Sosa had a terrific year, reaching 40 homers and 100 RBIs with six weeks left in the season, but a nitpicker can take issue with his ten errors against 15 outfield assists and his average of more than a strikeout a game.
This is a talented team, and any good team that loses 31 one-run games is close to being a very good team. Yet in order to be very good, much less great, the Cubs would need a leadoff man who hits .300 and gets on base 40 percent of the time, and they would need two or three solid starters, at least one of them a perennial Cy Young candidate.
With a wish list that extensive, the Cubs are lucky to have fans who will settle for their being merely likable.
Things would be different if Greg Maddux were still here, but that's the mournful song--more aggravating than comforting--that the Cubs and their fans have been singing for years.