Monday, April 9, 2012

Next Year Isn't Here

It's a weird season to be a Cubs fan (and, from what I can gather, a Chicago baseball fan in general). There's the prerequisite early season optimism about the Cubs' future -- perhaps the most justifiable optimism on the North Side in recent memory -- but not even the drunkest person in Wrigleyville expects the Cubs to contend this year.

The Cubs are two innings into a series against the Brewers as I write this. It is a series they are probably going to lose. Something called "Chris Volstad" is on the mound, a guy who had half a good season in 2008 and is probably best known either for getting mad at Nyjer Morgan or for being tall. He's kind of a microcosm of this entire season: a guy young and maybe talented enough where he could eventually become a keeper going forward, but in the (likely?) event that he doesn't, he can be thrown to the discard pile without much fanfare. (An ESPN announcer's attempt to muster some sort of praise for Volstad: "Three straight years he has thrown at least 29 starts -- and he's only 25." Just ignore the fact that his average ERA those years was 4.88.)

It's like an entire season of September baseball, almost, with one major exception. As the starting lineup was displayed on my TV screen, I could form three groups of players: veteran stopgaps who hopefully build their value before leaving the team (Soriano, Byrd, DeJesus), "young" stopgaps who hopefully put it together, most likely before leaving the team (Stewart, Barney, Lahair), and Players I Could Legitimately See Starting In Three Years (Castro, Soto -- and Soto might work his way into the first group with another underwhelming season). Not only is this not a season in which you can expect the Cubs to contend, it's not even a season where -- at least in the first couple of months -- you can really expect to see the young guys grow. The team's best young starter has been the subject of trade rumors. The promising position players are still in the minors. The most intriguing prospect is 29-year-old Bryan Lahair. 

Until those call-ups are made, things like Jeff Samardzija's near-complete-game gem are going to be few and far between. More often than not, a good play may garner a response of "that's going to help his trade value" before "that guy's future with the Cubs is bright". And, inexplicably, it's a season that's going to capture my attention all the way through. This is a thoroughly unique season (god, I hope it is, at least). There will be a lot of in-season roster turnover. A historically bad season isn't out of the question, but this is a year where the wins and the losses don't matter. What matters is watching the wheat separate from the chaff among the plethora of Volstad-quality players, seeing the Sorianos and Byrds gradually give way to the Jacksons and Rizzos. A season without any real expectations -- but the knowledge that a long-term plan is in place -- sets the table for the most satisfying bad year a baseball team can have. The Cubs should come out of it with a promising future that sets the stage for a more traditional brand of irrational optimism. Next year is next year.

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