Wait 'til next year: Chicago Cubs
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait Till Next year series.
Current record: 58-90 (.392, 5th in the NL Central)
Mathematically eliminated: September 9
What worked in 2012: Like the Astros, the Cubs underwent a new ownership-driven regime change that recognized the need to embark upon an immediate rebuilding plan. Theo Epstein walked away from the wreckage of the 2011 Red Sox to take the job of club president, and brought over then-Padres general manager (and former Red Sox assistant GM) Jed Hoyer to serve as the team's general manager. The new regime had some success paring payroll, trading Carlos Zambrano to the Marlins in January and swapping Marlon Byrd, Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm and Geovany Soto to various contenders during the season, with Dempster (2.25 ERA) and Maholm (3.74) both outperforming their career norms to net stronger prospect hauls than they might have otherwise. They couldn't unload Alfonso Soriano (owed $57 million from 2012-2014), but the 36-year-old outfielder has rebounded at least somewhat (.261/.316/.495 with 29 homers, his most since 2008), making a future cost-cutting trade possible. In June, their draft class — including picks of high school centerfielder Alberto Almora and righthanders Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn in the first and supplemental rounds — was ranked among the strongest.
Elsewhere, first baseman Bryan LaHair got off to a hot start in his first real chance at regular playing time (.308/.396/.582 through the end of May), but a prolonged tailspin (.213/.281/.323 through June and July) and the arrivals of 22-year-old Anthony Rizzo and 23-year-old Brett Jackson have consigned him largely to a pinch-hitting role; he has just 47 plate appearances and eight starts since August 4. Rizzo, acquired in a deal that sent Andrew Cashner to the Padres, has cemented his spot as the team's first baseman of the future by hitting .293/.347/.481 in 308 PA since being recalled in late June. Well-named catcher Welington Castillo, 25, has emerged as Soto's replacement via a .273/.342/.432 performance. Starlin Castro, 22, has had an uneven season (.279/.316/.424 with some ghastly mental lapses afield) but has gained power (career highs with 13 homers and .145 isolated power); his seven-year, $60 million contract is a club-friendly deal that should pay off in the end. Jeff Samardzija handled a bullpen-to-rotation conversion better than many other high-profile attempts, delivering a 3.81 ERA and 9.3 strikeouts per nine in 174 2/3 innings before being shut down earlier this month. And while Kerry Wood's midseason retirement was tinged with sadness for what might have been, his final strikeout was as goosebump-inducing a moment as any player produced all season.
What didn't work in 2012: The Cubs have struggled on both sides of the ball, ranking 15th in the league in scoring (3.82 runs per game) and 14th in run prevention (4.61 runs per game). Their offense has hit .241/.301/.380, ranking 15th, 16th and 13th in those respective categories despite the hitter-friendly nature of the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field. Soto (.199/.284/.347) struggled at the plate before being traded, and the team's third basemen — primarily Ian Stewart, Luis Valbuena and callup Josh Vitters — have combined to hit .199/.285/.327, making the free agent departure of Aramis Ramirez hurt more than it should have. Vitters (.108/.157/.205 in 89 PA) and Jackson (.175/.292/.369 in 120 PA) have been overwhelmed by major league pitching thus far, underscoring the mixed reviews they had drawn from talent evaluators. In the rotation, Chris Volstad, who was acquired for Zambrano, has been rocked for a 6.26 ERA in 18 starts, while Matt Garza suffered a season-ending triceps injury in late July, just before the team could decide whether or not to deal him. Closer Carlos Marmol has continued his decline, temporarily losing the closer job earlier in the year and walking a ghastly 7.7 per nine.Overall outlook: The Cubs have already clinched their third straight sub-.500 season, but Epstein and Hoyer have done the right thing by orienting the franchise toward the future. Some of what hasn't turned out in their favor thus far is either a product of bad luck (Garza's injury) or the previous regime's work (Soriano's albatross contract, a flawed crop of prospects), but that doesn't mean it's not their responsibility to deal with going forward. As with most rebuilding teams, their farm system needs work, but a good draft, the signing of Cuban free agent Jorge Soler, and the addition of several prospects via trade offer hope for the future. Still, don't expect the Cubs to contend for a few more years.