Commentary: The long, long road ahead for the Cubs

It was another tough year for the Cubs.

They ended with 101 losses for the first time in 46 years, their third largest loss total in franchise history; they finished 26th in the league in batting average; they didn’t have any big name free agent acquisitions; and worst of all, their attendance numbers fell.

On top of the removal of Ryan Dempster and rumors of Alfonso Soriano wanting a trade, there really isn’t a whole lot to say about the team this year other than “it was horrid.” What I can say, though, is that while the present is dark and murky, the future might be bright for the Cubs.

First off, before you start laughing at me, remember who the Cubs’ general manager is. Theo Epstein took over the Red Sox and made some acquisitions that lifted away the Curse of the Bambino and got the Red Sox their first championship since 1918 in 2004. The situation is similar to the Cubs’ Billy Goat curse, except Theo had a better team when he took over with the Red Sox.

The Red Sox had at least been in second place in their division for five years straight before he took over, including two playoff victories. The Cubs haven’t been above fifth place for four years now and they haven’t won a playoff game since 2003.

The Cubs are going to take a bit longer to get straight than the Red Sox. Cubs have question marks in many places, particularly in their pitching staff and outfield. Pitching is particularly an issue that takes a while to correct, and by getting rid of Dempster, Epstein could be making way for an even bigger pitcher this offseason. He could even be making way for a big name catcher as well by getting rid of Geovany Soto. This season was Epstein just getting a feel for a very troubled team, and the mid-season garage sale he pulled could just be selling the parts he doesn’t need in order to make room for better ones.

Another factor that makes for a bright future for the Cubs is the emergence of a handful of budding standouts. While Starlin Castro continues to be strong at shortstop, players like Anthony Rizzo, Jeff Samardzija, Darwin Barney and Brett Jackson offer bright spots that were clouded by the team’s inconsistent level of play and their less than adequate pitching/closing. In fact, Rizzo represents the best hope for the Cubs yet. Despite only playing 87 games this season, he still had the fifth-highest batting average on the team, the third-most home runs, and the fourth-best on base percentage on the team.
Samardzija also didn’t have such a bad year, either.

He ended with a 3.8 ERA and 180 strikeouts, but also left the impression for many fans that he may be one of the cornerstones of the pitching rotation next year. If these young and new players, who answer the franchises call straight after being called up from the minors, continue to get their major league experience and continue to aid the team, imagine what the team could do with the addition of a big name hitter in the lineup

The Cubs really are just one A-list player away from changing their fortunes. They missed out not acquiring either Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, to whom they made offers, so they had to go into this year with Soriano as their marquee asset. Looking at the free agent class, getting rid of Soriano could clear way for a move for a Delmon Young or Austin Kearns. The Cubs could even knock out both their catching and hitting struggles by pursuing Mike Napoli or AJ Pierzynski.

Baseball is a mysterious sport. Teams stacked with players can finish somewhere other than the top, even collapsing at the last minute out of the postseason. Teams with low payrolls and no-name players can make the push to make the wild card or win their division. Anything can happen in this sport, but the Cubs need to put themselves in the best position to succeed. They need to get themselves in a spot where they stop saying,” Maybe next year” and start saying “Maybe this year.”