How is it supposed to be better than this for the Cubs?
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The Cubs have been built for the long haul, for a maintenance program of continued prosperity on the field. So whatever happens in this extraordinary season probably won’t be their last best chance for a World Series title, only their first great chance.
Still, a question as the Cubs roll toward the playoffs: How is it supposed to get any better than this in the coming seasons?
They have three pitchers in the top five in earned-run average in the National League, with Kyle Hendricks’ 2.09 ERA leading all of baseball. They have five in the top 16 in the N.L. And that’s supposed to be duplicated how, moving forward?
Anthony Rizzo is third in runs batted in, Kris Bryant is fifth and Addison Russell is tied for sixth. Bryant is tied for first in home runs, and Rizzo is 12th.
All of this explains why the Cubs’ run differential (number of runs they have outscored opponents by) is a ridiculous 223. The second-closest team in either league is the Red Sox at 144.
Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, but these get most of the basic tale right: The team is having a transcendent season filled with group and individual accomplishments that franchises usually have only in their dreams.
So, is it realistic to expect that the Cubs will ever have as dominant a season as this one? Probably not.
Easy there, Mr. We’re Talking Multiple World Series Over The Next Five Years. I’m not suggesting there isn’t more good stuff in the Cubs’ future. I am wondering whether another season in which so many players are near the top of their games is possible.
I don’t think so, especially from the starting rotation. The group’s performance this season has dropped jaws all over baseball. No one could have seen Hendricks’ season coming, and Jon Lester, at 32, is arguably having his best season in the big leagues. It’s hard to see the arrow pointing any higher than it is this year.
Has Hendricks found something that makes up for a fastball that lacks giddy-up? More importantly, is it sustainable? It can be (see Greg Maddux). It doesn’t mean it will be (see Barry Zito).
“Give him credit,’’ manager Joe Maddon said of Hendricks. “Stop looking at the gun.’’
So true. Then again, Maddon is the guy who let Hendricks pitch past the sixth inning only seven times in 32 starts last season. Credit and faith take time to arrive when your fastball tops out in the low 90s.
The staff is so good that Jake Arrieta’s season (16-6, 2.84 ERA, a league-low 5.9 hits per nine innings) has been analyzed for defects more than a NASA pre-launch status check. And I’ve been right there with the analysis.
Still, all the dissecting is getting a bit out of control. The other day, a couple of radio talk-show hosts were discussing an online statistical breakdown of what was wrong with Arrieta’s slider. It was death by a thousand decimal points. Not only is he having to deal with being a lesser pitcher than he was last season, when he won the Cy Young, he’s having to sit through a math class that explains it. It’s possible he won’t make it to the mound for his next start, what with the full-body paralysis by analysis.
But that’s how good the Cubs are. We’re parsing greatness. It’s unlikely the staff will have that kind of regular-season success again. Not impossible, just unlikely. Nobody knows if the Cubs are going to give Arrieta what he wants when his contract is up after next season. And in Theo Epstein’s reign as team president, they’ve found exactly one major-league pitcher through the draft.
The flip side of that is the increased possibility that talented free-agent pitchers will want to play for the Cubs, provided the Ricketts family continues to increase the payroll.
Bryant’s and Rizzo’s success looks sustainable. Russell should improve, but there’s no guarantee on that. Same with the all the Cubs’ young players, including the injured Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs had better hope Jason Heyward gets better as a hitter, or else they bought the most expensive glove in the world.
This particular Cubs model has some cushion to it. It has been so good this season that it can absorb Heyward’s poor season and hardly notice it. Enjoy this dominance, Cubs fans. It might not be this good again.