Reassessing Expectations for the Cubs

Coming into 2015, many Cubs fans were hoping for little more than a fun, competitive, improved season. With the team rolling, is it now playoffs or bust?

The expectations for the Cubs this season have been an interesting topic. Most reasonable people looked at a young team with only a few proven starting pitchers and several rookies that wouldn’t even start the season on the Major League roster, making it easy to predict that the incremental progress from a 73-win season might, at most, take the Cubs to an 85-win ceiling.

But despite an awful season from Starlin Castro, injuries to a significant amount of players that includes Tommy La Stella, Jacob Turner, Mike Olt, Javier Baez, and Tsuyoshi Wada missing a massive amount of time, and inconsistencies in the bullpen, the Cubs currently sit at 62-48 and are on pace for about 91 wins.

I, for one, can remember saying that no matter what, I would take anything over 85 wins as a massive success for this team. I know several other Cubs fans were right there with me, trying to restrain strong feelings of hope and take a realistic look at the progress of the young Cubs. What about now? I took to social media to find out whether 88 victories and no playoff games would be a disappointment when considering the expectations.

The response I got isn’t really all that surprising. The Cubs currently hold a 3.5-game lead in the second Wild Card spot, and as of this morning, they have the fourth-best record in all of baseball. They’ve won 10 of 11 games, and the atmosphere at Wrigley Field has a distinct playoff feel to it. The roar of the crowd was as loud as I can remember when Hector Rondon danced out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation in the ninth inning on Sunday to snag a 2-0 victory, sweeping a four-game series from the Giants at Wrigley.

The expectations are changing, and traditionally, that has meant bad news for the Cubs. In 2003, the Cubs were merely a few games over .500 before a late push to finish 88-74, winning the division and getting to the NLCS, which they painfully lost to the Marlins (the Bartman year, for those who have blocked that memory). Going into 2004, the expectations were insanely high. They actually finished a game better than 2003 at 89-73, but in missing the playoffs, the Cubs crushed our souls.

Similarly, in 2008, the Cubs went 97-64. After being swept out of the playoffs for the second year in a row, they brought in Milton Bradley in 2009 and saw the team scuffle to an 83-78 record and a second place finish behind the Cardinals. The disappointment of the 2009 season actually helped many fans forget about just how much most Cubs fans hated the 2004 team.

But if the Cubs miss the playoffs this season, is that really a true disappointment? When comparing with previous disappointing Cubs teams, it’s hard to classify it that way no matter how you slice it. This team is young, and there are going to be ups and downs. When pitchers adjust to Kyle Schwarber, will it be surprising if he struggles to adjust right away?

17 June 2015:  Chicago Cubs Catcher Kyle Schwarber (12) [11203] hits a RBI triple for his first major league hit during the second inning of the game between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH.

The Cubs are in third place in their own division and have almost no shot at catching the Cardinals. With the best-case scenario being the Wild Card, which is a one-game crapshoot, and the Giants (winners of three of the last five World Series) being the closest challenger to the untested Cubs, it’s easy to envision a scenario where they end up with the sixth- or seventh-best record in baseball but on the outside in October.

For the Cubs to finish with 88 victories, they’d need to go an even 26-26. For the Giants to edge them out for the final playoff spot, they’d need to go 30-21. The Cubs are on a hot streak, but they’ve had several long stretches of playing .500 this season. The Giants were 59-48 before running into the red-hot Cubs this weekend, and it’s not inconceivable that they could go on an extended run.

So, try to remember that the Cubs have four rookies in the everyday lineup. This season was supposed to be about incremental progress, potentially with the reward of finishing above .500 for the first time since 2009, and I’d like to hope that fans would still consider it a success even if they fall short of a playoff game.

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