PITTSBURGH – The Cubs are selling their fans the dream of Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. Those kids will grow up to be the heart of a monster lineup and form the nucleus for a contending team.
But they’re not walking through the door anytime soon to turn this into a National League power.
Until the Cubs fully develop their own impact players, or start acting like a big-market team again and paying for the rare elite talents that reach the open market, they’re going to have to get by with what they have now.
“You can say what you want about anybody,” manager Dale Sveum said before Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “Those are our core guys that, yeah, we want to hit in the big leagues. But they haven’t hit in the big leagues yet. We can’t count on anything except the guys we got right now in this clubhouse.”
There’s no quick fix here. It’s not about learning how to be a clutch hitter. It’s not simply relaxing at the plate or going with the left-handed lineup, which Sveum admitted he’s thinking about now, playing David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz more and scrapping the platoons.
The Cubs entered Thursday at 18-27 after being outscored 182-177 so far this season. The “Pythagorean Theorem” designed by sabermetrics godfather Bill James indicates their record could be 22-23.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Sveum said. “Some of the stats we have are really strange, to have this good a starting pitching and be nine games under .500 and have a run differential of (-5). Certain things you just can’t explain, other than just not being able to put games away and hitting with men in scoring position, getting that run in, getting a big inning here and there. We’re just snakebit on that. We’re not getting that kind of stuff done.”
After 12 one-run losses, the Cubs are hoping their luck will turn soon. They began the day with 28 quality starts – trailing only the Philadelphia Phillies (32), St. Louis Cardinals (30) and Washington Nationals (29) – and tied for last in the N.L. Central.
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The Nationals have a -26 run differential that translates into a 20-27 Pythagorean record. But they’re still hanging around at 24-23 and sitting in second place in the N.L. East. The San Francisco Giants are only +4 and tied for first in the N.L. West.
The Cubs began the day leading the N.L. in doubles with 102 (no other team had more than 90) and trailing only the Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies (two first-place teams) with 48 home runs.
But hitting .214 (79-for-369) with runners in scoring position has helped fuel talk of another summer sell-off on the North Side. The Cubs have several nice complementary pieces, solid role players who can be pitched to in key situations. They need game-changers who can deliver against the frontline starters, top setup guys and elite closers.
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Baez, the 2011 first-round pick who won’t turn 21 until December, would still need a fake ID in Wrigleyville and plays with Soler at advanced Class-A Daytona.
Soler, the $30 million Cuban defector, got suspended for grabbing a bat during a bench-clearing incident and benched for not hustling last month. Almora, the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s draft, debuted at Class-A Kane County on Wednesday night (3-for-4) after breaking the hamate bone in his left hand in March.
With their ETA years away, the Cubs need Starlin Castro to take his game to the next level and Anthony Rizzo to prove he’s a legitimate middle-of-the-order force.
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“The bottom line is our core players have to do the job,” Sveum said.
The front office won’t get fooled by the numbers and will see this group for what it is at the trade deadline, weighing the team’s overall health and how it stacks up against the rest of the wild-card field.
General manager Jed Hoyer likes to quote NFL Hall of Famer Bill Parcells: “You are what your record says you are.”
But as the Cubs try to measure progress in this multiyear rebuilding project, and wait for the Baez/Soler/Almora generation to develop, remember another classic sound bite from the Parcells coaching tree.
This one came from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick: “Stats are for losers. The final score is for winners.”