Is tanking trend to blame for the Cubs’ stomach-churning, roller-coaster start?
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When left-hander Jon Lester talks about the Cubs’ unsettling “roller coaster” season so far, it’s no wonder he sounds almost queasy when he compares it to “Six Flags.”
Consider the Cubs’ pattern since April 26, or about the time the weather began to allow for a regular playing schedule:
They won five consecutive games, then lost five straight, then won five straight, then went 1-3 against the White Sox and Braves, then went 3-1 against the Reds, then lost their two games this week against the Indians — bringing them to the three-game weekend series against the Giants that starts Friday.
“I don’t like roller coasters,” Lester said.
Lester is one voice in a Cubs chorus that starts with team president Theo Epstein and continues with the manager, coaches and into the clubhouse in hoping, demanding and expecting a better, steadier rise toward October.
But should they expect that this year? Is this that kind of team? Is it that much better — or any better — than the other good teams in the league?
Could the Cubs’ roller-coaster ride also say as much about the new landscape in baseball created by the tanking trend as it does about the Cubs themselves?
Lester, for one, doesn’t think that tanking is necessarily the direct culprit.
“I think there’s more good teams in the league than teams that are rebuilding right now,” he said. “The teams that are rebuilding are just magnified because this offseason put everybody on the map with all that, just not spending money or whatever.”
Quick-selling, committed tankers such as the Marlins, Reds, Royals and White Sox contributed to the glacier-like pace of the free-agent market over the winter. But that market freeze also created bargains for rebuilding tweeners such as the Phillies to pick up the likes of Jake Arrieta.
What it produces by the time the season plays out will be determined by months of head-to-head play, injury attrition, progress or regression of young players and trade-deadline moves. But nearly two months into the season, baseball looks like a society of haves and extreme have-nots.
Which might help explain at least the feast-and-famine production of a strikeout-prone Cubs lineup built on power with few true on-base-style hitters, much less a true leadoff hitter — a team that hasn’t gotten enough out of a rebuilt rotation to compensate.
Six teams — or 20 percent of major-league baseball — had winning percentages below .400 through Wednesday. Four were on pace for 100-loss seasons, and two more were within less than two games off that pace.
On the other hand, six teams had winning percentages better than .600, and four were on pace for more than 100 wins.
Through the same point last season, only two teams were worse than .400, and four were at .600 or better.
The Cubs have gone 7-1 against a first-place Milwaukee team that has steamrolled almost everyone else. But beyond that, the Cubs have surged or sagged almost entirely as a function of their schedule.
This month alone, they are 8-2 against last-place teams, averaging 8.1 runs per game, and 1-9 against everyone else, with 2.5 runs per game. They have scored eight or more runs in 15 of their 46 games, and three runs or fewer in 23 (or half their games, for those scoring at home).
“Is there more parity in the game right now?” manager Joe Maddon mused. “There’s more potential winners I think. You talk about the Braves and Phillies ascending with the Nationals. You look at our division; we’re all stacked one through four. It’s a dog race right there.”
Whether the competitive landscape normalizes over the next four months or this becomes a new normal, Lester isn’t willing to accept that the answers involve anything outside the clubhouse.
“We keep talking about hitting our stride and getting going,” Lester said. “And we just haven’t hit that yet, for whatever reason.
“We’ve just got to keep showing up every day and doing our work and hopefully put a couple weeks together where everybody feels good about themselves and can build off of that.”