Good, bad, ugly: The Cubs at the two-month checkpoint

Good, bad, ugly: The Cubs at the two-month checkpoint
June 2, 2014, 6:30 pm
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It’s two months into the season, the Cubs have the worst record in baseball and they’re nowhere close to hitting rock bottom.

Manny Ramirez arrived in Arizona on Sunday, according to a Cubs official, and will likely need about a week of extended spring training before joining Triple-A Iowa as a player/coach.

That idea would have sounded crazy in mid-February when pitchers and catchers reported to Cubs Park, the new facility funded by Mesa taxpayers that would set Cactus League attendance records, showing this is an organization that gets things done. Surely, a coherent plan to renovate Wrigley Field, a moneymaking deal that works for City Hall and the rooftop owners, would be right around the corner.

[RELATED: Samardzija says trade talk won’t become distraction]

Uh, maybe not…but at that point, would Cubs fans have taken this?

• Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro enjoying bounce-back seasons, showing why Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer invested more than $100 million in those foundation pieces.

• Jeff Samardzija leading the majors in ERA on June 1.

• Jason Hammel beating Masahiro Tanaka – his first loss in 43 regular-season starts – and pitching like a potential All-Star.

• Mike Olt leading all National League rookies in home runs and RBI.

• Emilio Bonifacio getting red hot and putting together 17 multi-hit games.

• Neil Ramirez (0.77 ERA) and Hector Rondon (6-for-7 in save chances) stabilizing a bullpen now stocked with power arms.

• A positive run differential in late May.

• The division’s three playoff teams from last season fighting to stay above .500 (St. Louis) or struggling to even get there (Cincinnati and Pittsburgh).

Hey, with the second wild card, all that money leftover from the Tanaka sweepstakes, Javier Baez crushing the Pacific Coast League, waiting to give the team a shot of adrenaline…maybe the Cubs could at least make it interesting?

“It’s a crazy game, so you never know what’s going to happen,” Rizzo said. “But it’s not about me and Castro. It’s about all of us, the other 23 (guys) that are up here, too. We win together, we lose together.”

[MORE: Anthony Rizzo flips out, gets ejected in Cubs' loss to Brewers]

Winning is hard. That should be one takeaway from your 2014 Cubs. It’s a reminder for the next time president of business operations Crane Kenney and the Ricketts family tell you Theo, Jed and the boys could win 83 games in their sleep, that winning just one World Series isn’t what they’re about – they expect multiple titles.  

This is what happens when a franchise writes off entire major-league seasons, and it’s difficult to flip the switch, no matter what Kris Bryant does at Double-A Tennessee.

The Cubs open a three-game series on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field against another big-market team with financial issues and a hazy competitive timeline – Meet the Mets – at 20-34, stuck in last place, amid a string of PR gaffes.

With scouts and executives sequestered in Chicago preparing for the amateur draft that begins Thursday night, the Cubs would have the No. 1 overall pick in 2015 if the season ended today.

[ALSO: Revived in Milwaukee, Matt Garza ran out of hope with Cubs]

“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be in the standings,” Hammel said, “but we’re learning to win together right now.”

“We’ve had some things that I think have gone well,” manager Rick Renteria said. “There are some things that we continually need to improve on. We’ve had some components of the club that I think have gone very well. Our starting pitching has held its own.

“For the most part, I think the relief corps has done a nice job. On the offensive side, we’ve had some ups and downs. I think some individuals have started to carry a little bit more of the load. As a whole, I think we still aren’t clicking on all cylinders.”

Everyone understands The Plan and recognizes the Cubs have built a good farm system.

But Renteria is a second hire for this administration. Epstein has admitted the timing wasn’t right for Edwin Jackson’s $52 million contract. When the baseball operations department only has so many bullets to fire, another $14 million can’t be wasted on relievers Jose Veras and Kyuji Fujikawa. Take away Junior Lake’s production and the outfield’s platoon system has hit three home runs.

“The only thing you can do is just keep grinding,” Jackson said. “Good, bad, the ugly – it’s a long season. The starting pitching’s been good overall. The offense comes and goes, but that’s baseball. It happens. We’ll have our offensive surges and we have times where we don’t (hit). But when you’re on the mound, you can’t really think about that. You just have to pitch.”

[RELATED: Kris Bryant named Southern League Hitter of the Week]

It won’t get any easier when the Cubs trade away 40 percent of their rotation again. Renteria’s job will be keeping the clubhouse together, managing the public message, not burning out the young arms in the bullpen and making sure core players like Rizzo and Castro don’t take steps backward.

“How we are judged in the end?” Renteria said. “You know, I really don’t concern myself too much with it, because I have to really worry about what’s going on here right now. If I start worrying and thinking about how I will be judged or not judged – that’s happening every single day, so I can’t control that.

“And it’s done by everybody – by the media, by the fans, by the front office. I can’t control that. I know that I can only control the things that I try to do and the things I try to impart with the players here on a daily basis.

“In the end, what I am or am not – or where we are as a team – is not judged by everybody else. It’s going to be what it’s going to be.”

It could all work out in the end, but the next four months will be critical – who the Cubs draft with the No. 4 overall pick, what they get in the Samardzija/Hammel trades, how Baez and Bryant develop and if they finally put shovels in the ground for that $575 Wrigleyville project.