It’s too late to fret over what happened to the Chicago Cubs over the last month.
The damage is done.
They morphed from a team that looked like it might exceed expectations to one that looks remarkably similar to the 2022 group that was out of contention by June and winning meaningless games in the second half. All that goodwill built up in spring training and at the start of the season quickly has gone to waste.
What happens over the next month if the Cubs don’t come out of their extended slump could have ramifications that last well beyond 2023, making this a crucial juncture.
By the time they’re in London to play the St. Louis Cardinals on June 24-25, they could be back in contention — or back in sell mode for the final month before the trade deadline.
What’s it going to be, Cubs?
This is a team built to compete now, or so we were told by the marketing campaign: #NextStartsHere. Poor ratings on Marquee Sports Network last year and the lowest attendance at Wrigley Field since 1997 persuaded Chairman Tom Ricketts to open the checkbook to sign Dansby Swanson and Jameson Taillon, while the team-approved narrative in spring training stressed the influx of players with championship rings: Swanson, Cody Bellinger, Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini.
Osmosis typically isn’t a viable marketing strategy, but the Cubs assured fans the newcomers’ experience winning World Series games would rub off on everyone in the clubhouse.
But now the Cubs are back at #SquareOne. A 2-7 road trip, including a blown lead in Houston that was perhaps their toughest loss since the 2020 postseason, has spoiled the early optimism.
Hosmer is already gone. Taillon has thus far been a bust. And the revamped bullpen with veterans Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger at the back end hasn’t paid off at all.
What worked in early April stopped working by early May, and even the call-up of sensational slugger Christopher Morel hasn’t changed their luck in a brutal 9-20 stretch.
Entering a nine-game homestand that starts Tuesday, the Cubs are 20-26 and 4½ games back in the National League Central. Last year they were 19-27 after 46 games and 10 games back. That’s not the kind of progress Cubs fans envisioned — and they’re starting to get antsy.
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Fans were far more accepting of the generally terrible play a year ago because no one really believed the Cubs were capable of going to the postseason. The Cubs can blame themselves for the collective angst this spring. They did such a fine job convincing fans things would be different in ‘23 that the status quo now seems like a huge step backward.
If this latest downturn is indicative of what’s in store the rest of the way, the heat on President Jed Hoyer and manager David Ross could be unlike anything the two have experienced over the course of their four-year marriage. It would probably be a good time for both to forget their Wi-Fi passwords.
Both Hoyer and Ross insist they never read anything critical about themselves on Twitter, so they’ll remain happily oblivious if the trolls continue to multiply in the coming weeks. And Hoyer and Ross can be comforted by the knowledge the “it’s still early” caveat is in play, along with the fact the NL Central has been as mediocre as predicted.
The Cardinals were 10 games out of first place on May 6 but are 11-4 since and have picked up five games in the standings. That shows it’s not too late for the Cubs to turn things around, especially in this division.
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But the degree of difficulty only increases in the next 28 games before the London trip.
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The New York Mets have won five straight entering the three-game series at Wrigley Field that starts Tuesday, finally playing like the team owner Steve Cohen invested so much money into. The Cincinnati Reds, who come to town Friday for a weekend series, should offer a breather, relatively speaking. But the Tampa Bay Rays, who will finish off the homestand, remain the best team in baseball.
That slate is followed by a 10-game West Coast trip against the San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Angels and San Francisco Giants. The resurgent Pittsburgh Pirates and dominant Baltimore Orioles play at Wrigley in the next homestand, followed by three games in Pittsburgh.
While Ross doesn’t have to worry about his job being in jeopardy, he has a ways to go to convince Cubs fans he’s the right guy to take them where they need to be. He’s 199-231 in three-plus seasons, a .463 winning percentage. That’s lower than even Mike Quade’s .477 percentage during his brief reign in 2010-11.
No one is saying Ross is to blame, but he’s the one who allegedly couldn’t find a way to play Morel, leading to Morel’s demotion to Triple-A Iowa in spring training while Miles Mastrobuoni got the opening-day nod.
Ross also was OK with Hoyer’s decision not to sign a closer, saying in spring training one or more relievers could assume the role. That hasn’t happened, and the demotion of Keegan Thompson to Iowa sent a message that the development days are over.
The Cubs were happy to bury the recent past at the start of the season and begin the climb back to respectability.
But at some point they have to actually start the climb instead of just talking about it.