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Why I'm not worried about my Cubs

My Cubs, who made a shambles of the National League last year, are barely above .500 this year. Even so, they're at this writing only a game out of first place, and I have no doubt that they will win the NL Central by a comfortable margin.

But today, they lost yet another game they should have won, and Cub fans have started hitting the panic button. And there are good reasons to be concerned. By now the world champions should have left this very mediocre division in the dust, but they're not even leading it.

Every Cub starting pitcher has lost velocity over the winter. As to the bullpen, while Davis is great and Montgomery and Edwards good and Uehara and Duensing adequate, Strop, Grimm, Rondon, Pena and Floro are terrible (in Floro's case I'm basing that on what little we've seen from him at the MLB level).

The situation with the bullpen isn't a disaster since if you have a lights-out closer, a couple of decent set-up men, and a long reliever or two you can count on that's all you really need to win. As to the starters, Lester and Lackey have been OK despite the loss of velocity, and Butler, a rookie, has been at least adequate. Hendricks. who by rights should be the ace of the staff, has been hurt, and like all the other starters he hasn't been the pitcher he was last year even when healthy. Although he's looked decent on occasion, Arrieta had a career of mediocrity in the American League, a couple of years of absolute brilliance with the Cubs, a year of decline last year, and has largely stunk up the joint this year. His career will probably go on for several years as an average starter somewhere,  probably on some team that will grossly overpay for him this winter. But he won't be back with the Cubs next year, and shouldn't be. And the sooner he can be replaced in the rotation the better.

Jedstein, as the combination of Cubs President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer is known to Cub fans, will almost certainly trade for another starter in the next couple of months, and maybe even for two of them. But more than likely they'll trade for only one, hope to get by with the rest of the staff, and sign a free agent stud over the winter to replace Arrieta. Two studs would be nice, but that would probably be asking too much of the Ricketts family fortune.

The Cubs' offense is simply too scary and too deep for it not to break out of the doldrums pretty soon. It seems incredible that our entire lineup should go into a three-month slump at the same time, but it can't last forever. In the last week, they've had two ten run- plus games; I think they're already coming out of it. Suffice it to say that I am not worried about scoring runs as the race for the division heats up. I still expect the Cubs to win the division comfortably. Hopefully, the offensive production, once in high gear, will continue into the post-season.

But baseball is a game of hot streaks and slumps, and the best team in baseball rarely ends up as the world champion anymore. Last year was the exception to the rule. The overly long, silly playoff system has made the postseason as much a lottery as a contest of skill, and rarely do the best teams in eacj league face each other in World Series. The decline of the product, as well as the boredom of a nation whose attention simply can't be sustained over a period of six weeks the way it used to be over only one, is what has toppled the World Series from the premier sporting event of the year to an also-ran less popular than the NCAA Final Four or the Super Bowl and only a tad bigger a deal than the NBA or NHL playoffs.

The Cubs will probably not end up as the best team in baseball this year, as they clearly were last year, and even if they were the sheer randomness of baseball's postseason means that the odds are always against any specific playoff team winning it all. Don't be surprised if the Cubs are knocked out relatively early. But also don't panic if they are. It's tough to repeat as World Series champions in any case, and the team the Cubs take into the post-season this year will not be nearly as good as the one they took into it last year, or the one which I fully expect them to take into it next year.

I think it's reasonable, now that we've finally buried that goat with a devastating lineup it took years to build and a pitching staff put together with chewing gum and bailing wire that we should be patient for the year- or even two or three- it takes Jedstein to put together a pitching staff to match the lineup. Pitching is now the priority for what has become the best organization in the major leagues, and I expect Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein to make sufficient improvements to our pitching staff from the outside before the season ends to enable us to be competitive in the Fall. Together with free agent signings and the development of home-grown pitching talent, I think we'll be just fine next year, and even better the year after next. If we don't go into the postseason this year as favorites to repeat as world champions, I expect us to do so as favorites to regain our crown next year.

And within two to three years I expect the Cubs to have a better team than the one that won the World Series last year. Within the next five to ten, I expect them to win several World Series.

This is a team that still has the potential to be not just the best in baseball, but one of the best of all time. But here's the point which winning the World Series can kind of make you forget: the rebuilding process isn't over yet.

This team is not yet nearly as good as it has the potential to be- and it wasn't last year, either.


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