2016 Chicago Cubs: Is it next year yet?

Larry Jackson

For every mention of Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, which might be the worst trade the Cubs ever made, you’d think there’d be one of Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl for Ferguson Jenkins (and John Herrnstein and Adolfo Phillips). There isn’t, because the Cardinals won two World Series with Brock (and might have won a third if he’d only slid home in Game 5 in 1968), and the Cubs won none with Jenkins. Jackson “was involved in two of the best trades the Cubs ever made,” according to his 1990 obit in the Chicago Tribune, one coming and one going. Jackson broke in with the Cardinals in 1955 and won 101 games with them in eight seasons, making three All-Star Games, including 1960 when he won 18 games with a 3.48 ERA and led the NL in starts (38) and innings pitched (282). A year later he was 14-11 with a 3.75 and won 16 more in ’62 before he was traded, with reliever Lindy McDaniel and Jimmie Schaffer for outfielder George Altman, pitcher Don Cardwell and catcher Moe Thacker, who played three games for the Cardinals. Altman, coming off back-to-back .900 OPS seasons for the Cubs, fell to .740 with the Cards and was dealt to the Mets for Roger Craig. Cardwell was a Cardinal for a month, before going in a four-player deal to Pittsburgh that returned shortstop Dick Groat. But the Cubs got an NL-best 22 saves (13-7, 2.86 ERA) in ’63 from McDaniel and a 2.59 ERA from him in 128.2 innings in ’65 before dealing him for Bill Hands (who won 92 games over seven years for the Cubs and 111 in all). And the Cubs got a near Cy Young season from Jackson in ’64: he won an NL-best 24 games, pitched 297.2 innings with a 3.14 ERA and .605 OPS against and got two Cy Young votes to finish second behind the Angels’ Dean Chance (20-9, 1.65). The Cubs won 76 games and finished eighth in ’64, and Jackson, according to his Tribune obit, became the second NL pitcher to win 20 games for an eighth-place team (Noodles Hahn won 22 and lost 19 for the 1901 Reds, who were 52-87). The next year Jackson lost 21 games (second behind the Mets’ Jack Fisher, who lost 24), the first since Murray Dickson with the ’51-’52 Pirates (20-16, 14-21) to win 20 and lose 20 in consecutive seasons. After two starts in ’66 Jackson was dealt to the Phillies. Jackson wasn’t bad — he won 41 games with a 2.97 ERA for the Phils, but he was 35 and won 126 fewer games than Jenkins, 23 at the time of the trade, did for the Cubs. Jackson was 13-17 with a 2.77 ERA in 1968, his final season, but was picked by the Montreal Expos in the expansion draft and retired, apparently having had his fill of losing. He moved back to his native Idaho and entered politics, serving four terms as a Republican in the state house. According to his Tribune obit, Jackson said: “They call me a moderate, but being a moderate in Idaho would make me an ultraconservative in New York.” Jackson was 59 when he died in 1990. Career numbers: 194-183, 3.40 ERA, 3,262.2 innings, 558 games, 149 complete games, 37 shutouts, 20 saves, 3,206 hits, 824 walks, 1,709 strikeouts, 259 home runs, 113 ERA+, .675 OPS against, 3.32 FIP, 52.5 WAR (a high of 7.2 in 1959 and 6.0 in his second-place Cy Young season), five All-Star Games made (two in 1960), MVP finishes of 22nd in 1961 (1 vote) and 12th in ’64 (26 votes), no Hall of Fame votes.

On deck: Outfielder Billy McKinney was one of the other players the Cubs acquired for pitcher Jeff Samardzijia and Jason Hammel, as if shortstop Addison Russell wasn’t enough. McKinney might someday make it even better. The Cubs have a crowded major league outfield, which means McKinney will spend most of 2015 at AA and/or AAA. But like the hidden change jar that only you know where it is, he’s there if the Cubs need him. McKinney has a minor-league .366 on-base percentage  and .289 average and a touch of power; he hit 11 homers in 2014. He’s still only 20 and has played center, but the Cubs are pointing him to a corner position.

2015 stat: The Cubs got double figures in home runs from every position in 2015: catcher (Miguel Montero 15), first base (Anthony Rizzo 31); second base (Starlin Castro 11); shortstop (Addison Russell 13); third base (Kris Bryant 26); left field (Chris Coghlan 16); center field (Dexter Fowler 17); right field (Jorge Soler 10). And 16 more from catcher-outfielder Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs have never had nine players hit double-figures in home runs. (The 1978 Cubs had only one player hit double figures in home runs: Dave Kingman with 28. Bobby Murcer hit 9, and no other Cubs hit more than 5. They hit 72 as a team, or just 26 more than MLB leader Jim Rice’s 46. The 1946 Cubs had no double-figure home run hitters, and had just 56 as a team, three by pitcher Claude Passeau. He tied for seventh on the team leaderboard, behind Phil Cavarettea and Bill Nicholson, who tied for high, so to speak, with 8.)

What he said: Donald Trump in a tweet on Cubs owner Tom Ricketts:  “I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!” What he meant: “The Cubs are losers. Yuuuuuge losers.”

Outlook: Here’s something you don’t read every spring: The Cubs are the best team in baseball.

It’s only March, but it’s hard to remember the last time  that was the case, even in spring training. Given that it’s probably been a century since true, anyone who could remember it probably can’t anymore.

The Cubs won 97 games last year and four of their first five in the playoffs before being swept by the Mets. No team that played as far into last fall improved as much as the Cubs in the offseason; no team was going to based on its youth, but the Cubs took a shortcut: they got better players, too.

Last year’s Cubs were just 16th in run scored and 12th in home runs and on-base percentage. They added Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, who do both, to their lineup; it doesn’t hurt that Heyward is a Gold Glove outfielder.

The Cubs were third in baseball in ERA, but added free agent John Lackey, whose 2.77 ERA was best among Cardinals starters, the team which ranked first in ERA, four-tenths of a run better than the Cubs. How much more of a win-win could it be?

But the best team doesn’t always win, and more often doesn’t. The more teams in the playoffs, the more the postseason becomes like the NCAA tourney, where any seven seed can win.

The Cardinals won 100 games last year and exited in the first round, thanks to the Cubs. The Giants won 88 games and were a 9 seed, at best, in 2014; they beat the Nationals, who won eight more games in the season, in the first round.

In this century, only three times has the team which won the most games won the World Series, and all from the AL East: the 2007 and 2013 Red Sox (tied with Cleveland and St. Louis, respectively) and the 2009 Yankees.

The 2001 Mariners won 116 games, 21 more than the Yankees and lost in five in the ALCS; the 2006 Cardinals were 13th in wins with 83, but won a bad division and went 11-5 — a .688 winning percentage, or 173 points better than their regular season one — and won the World Series.

It used to be that MLB played a full season to determine the two best teams for the World Series; now it plays a full season for fantasy stats and to put 10 teams in the postseason. Entertainment makes money.

The team that’s won the most games is just 3-for-16 in winning the World Series since 2000, a batting average only pitchers and gamblers convinced the Cubs are due would love. And if those numbers don’t assuage a Cubs’ fans’ discontent, the Curse of the Billy Goat should do it.

But enough piling on the Cubs and their fans, who have had 110 years of history dumped on them, one slab of ignominy at a time. If there’s a reason the 2016 Cubs can’t win, it’s not identifiable in March.

They won 97 games last year, and that was with just half a season from Kyle Schwarber, who homered 16 times in the regular season and five more in the postseason. With a full season of Schwarber, the Cubs could hit 100 home runs in the middle of the order. How many runs will Zobrist, who’s averaged 81 walks a season since becoming a regular, score ahead of that.

The Cubs might be short a reliever, and perhaps another starter, but they have an able manager, a wily front office and assets to dangle. Javier Baez, a 23-year-old middle infielder who’s slugged .541 in the minors, has no place to play. On how many other teams would that be said?

The Cubs are where golfer Phil Mickelson was when he predicted multiple majors and Masters before he had even won one. The Cubs can see a future of many championships, if they can only win the first.

It seems presumptuous, like Hillary Clinton talking about running for her second term before winning number one.

And yet the Red Sox went 86 years without before 2004, then won two more before another decade was out. There’s precedent the Cubs can believe in. If the Curse of the Bambino fades, how can a billy goat’s endure?

The Cubs may win the World Series this year. Or not. But starting the season with their nucleus is a little like putting the garbage cans out daily in a new town where you don’t know the ordinances. One day, like the Cubs’ debt to their fans, they’ll be emptied.
Team Song: Sarah Vaughan: Stairway to the Stars

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