Let's start with the past. When Theo Epstein left the Red Sox as general manager after the 2011 season to become miracle worker of the Cubs, he imploded the roster. Then he added a slew of new pieces, and most were prospects. His mission was to have the Cubs sprinting deep into October on a consistent basis by the year 2020, or maybe as early as '17, or even '16.
Certainly not 2015.
That said, courtesy of a clubhouse filled with (1) talented players barely old enough to grab a legal beer in Wrigleyville, (2) one of the game's most extraordinary managers and (3) Ernie Banks blessing his boys from an ivy-covered place in the sky, the future is almost now for the Cubs. I'm waffling, because the Cubs have finished fifth in the National League Central for five consecutive years. They've also teased their loyal followers through the decades with near misses when it comes to trying to make the playoffs, Steve Bartman and a billy goat. They haven't won a World Series championship since 1908, and their last pennant came in 1945.
As for these Cubs, they are ordinary in most statistical categories in the Major Leagues. They rank in the middle of the pack in runs scored, batting average and home runs. The same goes for team ERA. They are around the bottom third in fielding percentage. They do sit near the top in stolen bases, and they are wonderful at threatening to turn fiction into fact. Remember the make-believe movie 26 years ago called Back to the Future Part II? Among its predictions was that the Cubs would snatch the World Series championship in 2015.
This is getting interesting. Despite those ho-hum statistics as a team, what these Cubs do is find ways to win. At least for the moment. They slid past the Pirates, 11-10, on Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field in the 12th inning after sweeping the NL-leading Mets in four games. Four of the Cubs' last five victories have come by one run -- an indicator of the clutch ways of their young hitters and the celebrated X's and O's of Joe Maddon, their first-year manager who spent a masterful nine seasons with the Rays.
The Mets began that series with one of baseball's most celebrated pitching staffs, but the Cubs' starters and relievers were better. The Cubs also showed their comeback ability in two of their triumphs over the Mets, including a scramble from a 5-1 deficit in the fifth inning on Thursday to claim a 6-5 victory. As a result, the Cubs are 20-15 and have solidified their hold on second place in their division behind the Cardinals. Plus, after a winter of renovations to Wrigley Field, a modern version of the bleachers are back in left and center fields, and the right-field bleachers are on the way. The ivy also is green, and who says the Cubs can't shock the world sooner rather than later? All they must do is ...
1. Get another starting pitcher of significance Jon Lester has turned a shaky start into outings more appropriate for a guy who got $155 million during the offseason. Jake Arrieta is a solid No. 2 with a 3.00 ERA, and Jason Hammel's three victories rank among the NL leaders. That's about it for the Cubs' rotation, which brings us back to Epstein's wheeling and dealing. He turned his farm system into a candy store of goodies for other baseball executives, who can swap one of their stud pitchers for either a Cubs lollipop or a promising infielder or outfielder.
2. Enhance the bullpen Goodness knows, there is little problem with Hector Rondon and his flamethrowing right arm. The Cubs also have decent setup folks, led by Pedro Strop. So if they get a few more middle relievers, they'll be fine. It's just that nearly everybody needs a few more middle relievers, but not everybody has the Cubs farm system of goodies.
3. Strikeouts Strikeouts? The Cubs rank sixth in the Major Leagues in strikeouts, and power pitching is huge during the postseason. Sorry, but in this context I'm talking about hitter strikeouts. The Cubs fan more than any team in baseball. In Jorge Soler (51), Kris Bryant (38), Addison Russell (32) and Dexter Fowler (33), the Cubs have four players ranked among the game's worst in this category. This isn't conducive to manufacturing runs -- a must in October, or even just getting there.
4. Keep Anthony Rizzo healthy At 25, Rizzo is among the young and gifted Cubs. His .341 batting average is the eighth best in baseball, and he has other solid numbers in home runs, stolen bases and RBIs. But nobody gets plunked by more pitches than this smooth-swinging first baseman in his fifth season. He leads his peers with 11 hit by pitches. He had 15 last year, and the team record is 17. Ouch, for a lot of reasons.
5. The continued growth of the young and gifted Rizzo is progressing well (see above). So is Starlin Castro, the Cubs' shortstop who made the All-Star Game during three of his previous five years in the Majors Leagues. And get this: They both are 25. This is more about three other key youngsters for the Cubs -- starting with Bryant, 23, in his rookie year at third base. He ripped his fourth home run Friday. Fellow rookie Russell plays second base, and he still has growing pains at 21, and Soler is evolving into a prime contributor at 23 in right field.
Who knows? These Cubs may continue to jell, surprise and win in bunches this season.