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Cubs' rebuild offers opportunities, but losing is no less painful

Ryan Herrera Avatar
June 16, 2022

If anyone knows what it’s like to be part of a rebuild on the North Side of Chicago, Alfonso Soriano does.

Signed to an eight-year, $136 million contract — the largest in Cubs history at the time — heading into the 2007 season, Soriano was a part of the Cubs teams who won back-to-back National League Central titles in ’07 and ’08, two of the few playoff rosters the team had for decades. But in the ensuing years, things changed. The Ricketts family bought the Cubs in 2009. They hired Theo Epstein, who helped lead the Red Sox back to glory in the decade before, to be the team’s president of baseball operations in 2011.

The next couple of seasons featured a teardown of the roster, with a number of veterans getting dealt for prospects in 2012 and ’13. As the roster turnover commenced, the record tanked. The 2012 season ended with 101 losses, while the Cubs sat at 45-55 in ’13 before they dealt Soriano to the Yankees on July 26 as part of the new regime’s first sell-off.

“They appreciated what I did for the young guys, but they understood that I wanted to be in the playoffs,” Soriano, who was in town due to his son’s travel baseball team’s tournament in Indiana this weekend, told CHGO on Wednesday. “That’s why they traded me to the Yankees, because the Yankees, they’re a team that was supposed to go that year to the playoffs.”

That rebuild featured the Cubs debuts of highly touted prospects. Starlin Castro (2010) and Anthony Rizzo (2012) were up in time to be teammates with Soriano, while Javier Báez (2014), Kris Bryant (2015), Kyle Schwarber (2015) and Willson Contreras (2016) arrived later on.

All of that work paid off as the Cubs won the World Series in ’16 for the first time in 108 years, and credit those in charge with taking a big-market team who’d seen mostly losing for much of its history, tearing everything down, and creating a system and an environment that led to the Cubs finally reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

“I think that they ran it the right way, because they had to understand the system,” Soriano said. “They come in from different systems, so when they came to the Cubs, they had to learn the system. When you learn the system, you see what happened — they won the World Series.”

They didn’t reach that point again, but the Cubs’ run of success led to three straight National League Championship Series appearances as they made the playoffs in five out of six years. That’s a stretch of winning the ballclub had never experienced before.

Still, that was then. This is now.

The trade deadlines moves in 2021 are well-documented, as are as the struggles that have come since. As things stand, the Cubs are riding a nine-game losing streak after their 19-5 loss to the Padres on Wednesday. They sit at 23-39, a .371 winning percentage that falls below both the ’12 and ’13 seasons.

“It’s always tough,” Willson Contreras said of the recent string of losses. “Especially when you get ahead in the scoreboard and you’re winning 5-0 or 5-1, and then all of a sudden the score flips. But man, it’s just baseball. We have to find a way to win ballgames.”

No, Jed Hoyer — who now runs the team after moving into Epstein’s role in 2020 — still hasn’t said the team is rebuilding, but that’s just semantics at this point.

The Cubs weren’t supposed to compete for a World Series in 2022. This season was always about the club looking for contributors to the “Next Great Cubs Team,” and even more so now as the losses have piled up.

On the hitting side, it’s been Christopher Morel — the No. 21 prospect in the system, per MLB Pipeline — who’s set the world on fire for most of his first month in the big leagues, while his good friend Nelson Velazquez (No. 16) got a cup of coffee during the doubleheader against the Brewers.

The pitching side has seemed even more like a tryout, with rookies Ethan Roberts and Brandon Hughes getting extended looks out of the bullpen at different points in the season. Matt Swarmer got his first big league start on May 30, and despite a tough outing Saturday, he’ll likely be a part of the rotation until the starters’ injury issues work themselves out.

Even Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson, who both made their big league debuts over a year ago, are still somewhat in that tryout phase, though it’s more so the Cubs figuring out if they can be successful starters instead of versatile, multi-inning relief weapons.

The spots are there, and the players getting them have to take advantage.

“Some guys are getting opportunities,” manager David Ross said earlier this week. “If you get an opportunity you get to stay, and that’s part of it. The harsh part about this league is it’s a performance league. You got to do well to stay here sometimes, too.”

The most welcome opportunity as far as the fanbase is concerned has been for Caleb Kilian, the top pitching prospect and No. 5 overall prospect in the system, per MLB Pipeline.

His debut on June 4 happened amid a stretch of 11 games in nine days, when it became necessary that he get called up to provide some relief for the pitching staff. Despite a strong five innings in his debut, it always felt like a fill-in spot, and that was confirmed when he was optioned to Triple-A Iowa the next day.

But rotation injuries have since piled up. Drew Smyly will likely be out until at least the end of the month as he recovers from a right oblique strain. Marcus Stroman (right shoulder inflammation) and Wade Miley (left shoulder strain) aren’t eligible to return from the 15-day IL until June 22 and June 26, respectively. So, the Cubs recalled Kilian on Wednesday for what should be, from the sound of it, more than just a one-off start.

“Right now, it’s just a matter of we need a starter,” Ross said. “Stroman is down, Miley is down, Smyly is down. It’s just opportunity right now, and he’ll get the opportunities when the rotation shakes out that way.”

Kilian’s second-career outing could’ve been a light in what has otherwise been a dark stretch for the Cubs. While other prospects have found some success, Kilian is the only one in MLB Pipeline’s top 15 who’s made his debut thus far during the rebuild. Any success he has might still give fans a reason to buy tickets, or at the very least, watch on TV.

But that didn’t come to fruition Wednesday night. Kilian had a lack of command from the jump, needing 49 pitches to get through two innings and leaving the game after four frames on 86 pitches. He got tagged for five earned runs and matched that total in both hits and walks, and he didn’t record a single strikeout.

“Not very good,” Kilian said when asked to assess his performance. “I had a hard time commanding the ball. I had to rely really heavily on the sinker. Didn’t have my sharpest stuff. Overall, just not a great.”

It’s hard to fault Kilian for struggling. Not only did he get just two days notice that he would be shutting back to Chicago for the second time, but the weather (92 degrees and wind blowing out at first pitch) didn’t do him any favors.

But following that letdown, the focus returns to the dismal run both the team and its fans are enduring. The Cubs have been outscored 84-26 over the last nine games. They face San Diego’s Joe Musgrove (7-0, 1.50 ERA) to close out the four-game series, and then they welcome the Braves — who enter Thursday on a 14-game winning streak — for a weekend series at Wrigley Field.

The starters and offense have both been inconsistent at best during this stretch. The bullpen, which was the team’s strength for most of the first two months, has taken a beating. Things have gotten to the point that Frank Schwindel, the team’s regular first baseman, has as many relief appearances (two) as David Robertson over the last nine contests.

Without knowing for sure how they’ll fare over the next four games, there’s a very real chance the Cubs head to Pittsburgh with 13 losses in a row.

“Losing’s not fun,” Ian Happ said. “It never is, and when you go through stretches like that — long innings, you’re out there trying to keep everybody upbeat and positive — that gets harder as the losses mount. It’s just one of those funks that you go through throughout the season that you try to break and get to a point where you can play a stretch of good baseball.”

The last time the Cubs lost to this magnitude, transparency and the promise to deliver the long-awaited title bought a couple years of goodwill from the fanbase. But when the they won, the expectations for the big-market franchise were forever raised.

There’s no more goodwill when it comes to losing. The fans finally saw their team win consistently, and they haven’t been receptive to a second rebuild only a decade after the first. Anger is growing in the fanbase, and the longer the product on the field fails to provide hope, the higher the likelihood that apathy will set in.

If fans are angry, that means they still care. When fans start to tune out, that’s when bigger problems arise.

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