My friend Ed has a problem.
You see, Ed is one of those glass-is-half-empty sports fans. An ardent supporter of the Colts, Pacers and Hoosiers, he is the first to be critical when things do not go well.
Don’t call him a bandwagon supporter, though. Ed is a loyal fan; he just expects a lot from his teams and is quick to call out the problems.
There is one exception. Ed is a Cubs fan.
When the talk turns to Wrigleyville, that half empty perspective turns to half full. Hope and Cubs are four-letter words, and Ed uses both freely in tandem.
“Just wait, Bob,” he assures me. “2016 is our year,” he says of Chicago’s current rebuilding process.
The date is one Ed uses with conviction, seemingly oblivious that previous predictions of 2011, 2012, 2013, etc., have all passed without fanfare, much less October relevance. He can do that without the same emotional buy-in that comes with being a fan of other teams.
The difference is simple—the Colts and Pacers have an annual chance to be very good, maybe even great. A fan like Ed makes a personal investment. It hurts when the payback is less than expected.
Not so with the Cubs. The expectations are limited; so is the emotional commitment. No one — not even a professed true believer like Ed — expects the Cubs to be anything more than a cellar challenger.
Fans expect little, and the team delivers. Lately, Chicago has lived down to expectations. Even this year, after a remarkable road sweep of World Series champs Boston, the Cubs still are in dead last, a dozen games back at the halfway mark.
That is changing, though.
And that is why Ed has a problem. The Cubs may be on the brink of building something special. That’s right, the Cubs are on the road to relevance.
They’re not there yet, as their last place standing today attests. And it may take longer than 2016. But President Theo Epstein, who took over after the 2011 season, is creating a solid young team.
Some of the pieces already are in place, such as big first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.274/17 HR) and rangy shortstop Starlin Castro (.290/26 doubles)
Others are maturing in the minors, including hot prospect Kris Bryant, a third baseman with power, infielder Javier Baez, and former IU catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber. The latter, the No. 4 pick in this year’s draft, has quickly moved up to Class A Kane County.
Epstein has been active on the trade market too, with a blockbuster deal earlier last week sending popular starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija to Oakland for shortstop prospect Addison Russell, who is now in Class AA.
The Cubs now have four of the top 15 prospects in the minors and eight of the top 100 in rankings that do not yet include Schwarber. Some of that likely will be used as trade bait. The pitching pipeline remains thin, especially after the loss of Samardzija and starter Jason Hammel in the Oakland deal.
“I really feel there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Epstein told MLB.com after his latest trade. “We appreciate our fans’ patience, and we’re working extremely hard to reward them with a team they can be proud of for a long time at Wrigley Field.
“This group has a chance to stay together, and our fans have a chance to get to know them, and not just for one or two years.”
Does that mean October baseball may be on the horizon at Wrigley, itself in the early stages of a multi-million makeover. Yes, that is certainly the target. Anything less will be a disappointment.
“These are real prospects,”
Epstein said. “Not all of them work out, but we like these
players quite a bit, and they have a chance to play together for all time at Wrigley Field.
“When you put that together with a couple of 24-year-old All-Star-caliber performers like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, you can’t be (anything) but excited about our future.”
However, from a billy goat to Bartman, Cub fans understand disappointment.
Count Ed among them.
That is where the problem starts for Ed and other Cubs fans.
Can you really buy in to this new direction? Can you really trade the half-in-jest predictions of a turnaround and go all-in behind Theo?
“Cubs in 2016, baby,” Ed tells me with a confidence that he reserves only for his Chicago boasts.
This time, he just may be right.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.