- ANATOMICALLY IMPOSSIBLE ACTS OF BASEBALL
In any field, topping yourself is the hardest of goals to meet, and not just because it’s an anatomically impossible act. I’m referring to sequels, encores, and continuations.
You try to follow up your big hit and there’s something like a one percent chance you’ll get The Godfather II and about a 99 percent chance you’ll get Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. And if you think about it, for all the deserved criticism it gets, Phantom Menace is kind of a high achiever among follow-ups that missed their targets; it’s no Grease 2, Speed 2, or Superman III. What that teaches us is that greatness is so difficult a standard to achieve that you can hit most of your marks and still fall excruciatingly short.
The Chicago Cubs are in that position now. Over the years I’ve often retold the old Broadway story about Richard Rodgers being asked how he planned to follow up Oklahoma! and the film producer Sam Goldwyn jumped in with the helpful suggestion that he should kill himself. It wasn’t that Goldwyn had foreseen a dark future in which The Sound of Music became a killer virus which debauched the culture, but that he hadn’t seen the future, didn’t know that Rodgers and his partner Oscar Hammerstein II had better, darker stories like South Pacific and Carousel in them, and so assuming that they didn’t, suggested there was no point in even trying.
Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and the gang are in Rodgers’ position now. They’ve fixed the unfixable Cubs; now they have to keep them on top.
Building a dynasty is harder than it was back when the Yankees dominated baseball from 1947 to 1964 (or, really, 1936 to 1964, despite three different ownerships, five managers, four GMs, and countless player changes) due to the draft, free agency, greater revenue parity, and other entropic forces. To cite just one example, the Cubs face losing Jake Arrieta to a higher bidder 12 months from now. That’s not something the Yankees ever had to worry about with Whitey Ford.
Short of trading half the roster for Alcides Escobar, the Cubs will go into the 2017 season as the favorites to win the World Series, but because of that, their tolerance for risk is in some ways lower than you might think it would be given their great depth. It always is when you’re balancing on a pinnacle.
As such, the Cubs signing Chief Justice Jon Jay to a one-year contract is one of those moves that requires more scrutiny than is usual because it goes to sorting out what is a very crowded outfield situation, one complicated by the question of Jason Heyward’s epic bat-fail (find it on your utility belt next to the bat-shark repellent), the return of Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez’s bid for more playing time, which would more often push Ben Zobrist to an outfield corner, the need to figure out what they have in Jorge Soler, the maturation of Albert Almora, and Joe Maddon’s predilection for playing everybody.
The real question here is whether Jay is regarded as the starting center fielder, or if Heyward is going to make the move to center field that was being discussed last winter. Dexter Fowler, whose departure is now presumed to be a sure thing—and it probably should be given the confluence of his age, variable offensive performances, sub-Tris Speaker defense, and desire for a multi-year contract—is not going to have his production replaced on a one-to-one basis by Jay or a Jay-Almora platoon, but freeing up a corner so as to make some of the other lineup permutations possible just might mean piecing an approximation of it together.
Well, almost. Fowler’s 79 walks are going to be hard to get back. Jay is one of those average-first players I mentioned when discussing Jean Segura last time out. If he’s hitting .295 or .300, he can be useful, but when he doesn’t there’s not a whole lot there. He’s also averaged only 39 walks per 162 games played.
Taking Almora’s record at various minor league levels and in the majors together, he has averaged about 28 per 162 games. Now, he’s been playing since he was 18, so that record takes in a great deal of immaturity; in 2015-2016 he was closer to 32 walks. Jay isn’t Joe DiMaggio in center field; Almora might be. Maddon’s alchemical work will be key to getting the most out of the combination, but league-average offense combined with improved defense might be a wash with 2016, especially if you assume some regression from Fowler on both sides of the ball.
And, of course, as detailed above, the Cubs’ fallbacks have fail-safes, which have backdoors. This is also a description of the deus ex machina plot device employed by Anthony Hopkins at least once an episode of HBO’s Westworld, but I digress.
In the longer run, the Cubs’ real sequel-defying act will be patching a starting rotation that, as good as it was, not only has to withstand the possible loss of Arrieta (not to mention his occasional lapses this season—a worrying sign of things to come?) but of John Lackey as well (he’ll be going on 39, so this may be a foregone conclusion), the increasing age of Jon Lester, possible regression from Kyle Hendricks, and the present absence of a fifth starter—there’s a reason Mike Montgomery ended up in the bullpen. Their best pitching prospects are probably a season away, and, as with all tyro pitchers, are considered guilty until proven effective.
There’s also no capital C closer right now, but that pales in importance next to the ongoing maintenance of the rotation. You don’t want to see a possible run of championships founder because your starting pitchers ossified and turned into crystal skulls. That would be terrible. The problem of keeping a baseball team on top really is like that of making a good sequel: Very few of us ever have a moment in our lives where we get up from our chairs and jump 100 feet into the air. Even fewer of us have the skill to stay there.