2017 Cubs: Why they can win again


Don Elston

Don Elston, who was a Cub his entire career but for one game with Brooklyn in 1957, was one of the early late-inning specialists. After being traded back to the Cubs in 1957 — he started with the Cubs, appeared twice with the major-league team in ’53 and then was dealt to the Dodgers — he moved to the bullpen full-time at the end of 1957 and made his final 414 appearances in relief. He led NL pitchers in games in ’58 and ’59 (his career-high 69 in 1958 would have tied for 39th in 2016), saved 35 games from 1958-60 and won 27 more. He was an All-Star in 1959 and saved the NL’s 5-4 win by pitching a scoreless ninth. Elston was one of the pitchers for whom the save rule was created by Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman. From Holtzman’s New York Times obit in 2008, quoting a conversation Holtzman had with the website SportsNutz: “I think it came about in 1960. Elroy Face was 18-1 with Pittsburgh in 1959. I was traveling with the Cubs. The Cubs had two relief pitchers; right hander Don Elston and left hander Bill Henry. They were constantly protecting leads and no one even knew about it. The year Elroy Face was 18-1 he blew 10 leads. Did you know that? But they had such a good hitting team they came back in the last inning and won the game for him. Elston and Henry were terrific. I thought it was not fair and that there should be some kind of index for the effectiveness of a relief pitcher. You couldn’t judge him by his victories. You couldn’t judge him by his earned run average because it should be lower than everybody else’s. A lot of the runs he gives up are charged to the preceding pitcher. So I came up with the save rule and obviously it’s caught on.” Elston accumulated 64 of them in his nine-year career, a total which would be a good season-and-a-half for today’s closers. Elston was released by the Cubs in April 1965, went to the minors and retired. He died in 1995 at age 65; according to his Chicago Tribune obit, written by Holtzman, Elston “had a history of heart trouble,” and doctors forbid him from doing running exercises with teammates, whom he never told. From Holtzman’s story: “We used to call him the commissioner because he set his own rules and didn’t run with the pitchers,” said (former teammate) Moe Drabowsky. “But there was never any animosity. He was highly respected.” Career totals: 49-54, 3.69 ERA, 64 saves, 450 games, 15 starts, two complete games, 755.2 innings, 702 hits, 327 walks, 519 strikeouts, 106 ERA+, 3.92 FIP, .723 OPS against, 9.9 WAR.

Up next: Where  do you play when your position is manned by the reigning NL MVP? Probably Cincinnati. Or Atlanta. Or somewhere in the American League. That’s what’s likely for Jeimer Candelario, who raised his average by more than 100 points and his OPS by 269 after a dismal .219/324/367 at AA last year, which somehow earned him a promotion. Don’t knock it. Candelario is 23, or just 22 months younger than Kris Bryant, which means he’ll be waiting a long time for third base to become vacant. If Candelario says he’s surprised when he plays the role of Gleyber Torres this summer, than he’ll be a worse liar than he is a player. His power is moderate but his ability to get on base is better. He has a career .351 on-base percentage, including .376 last year when he walked 70 times.

What he said: ” ‘That’s Cub’ is a two-word celebration of what they’ve created,” said team president Theo Epstein on the team’s motto for 2017. What he meant: “Runner-up was ‘Wait till last year.’ ”

Outlook: I saw my favorite and oldest Cubs fan for the first time since the World Series recently, and one of the first things he said after accepting congratulations was, “They gave up too much for Chapman.”

And the world says Philadelphia fans are negative.

The Cubs went 108 years without a World Series title, and my favorite Cub fan is over 90, so he watched most of them, which maybe allows you to reminisce of the glory days of Gleyber Torres yet to happen.

But Torres could be the next Derek Jeter and it wouldn’t too much to pay for the closer the Cubs needed. You get that close to glory and it’s no time to be timid. It’s like training for a marathon and then pulling up at 26.1 miles, even though you’ll be just as spent.

Chapman complained that he was overworked, and maybe he was, but it helped make the seventh game more thrilling and allowed one final pre-2016 That’s Cub moment, Rajai Davis’ game-tying home run. (Reports out of my favorite Cubs residence at that moment were it became quiet, eerily 4 a.m. quiet as Cleveland went loud.) But did Chapman think he was going to the Cubs to be used in moderation? That they would save him for next year?

Chapman’s not a Cub anymore because sometimes ruthlessness is necessary to win a World Series, and his future and/or health in the fall of 2016 wasn’t Joe Maddon’s primary concern. No one has won the Series consecutively in almost a generation, since the 1999-2000 Yankees, but the Cubs begin the next season as a better team than did the previous 15.

Last year’s Cubs were the best team in baseball virtually from the first day of spring training to the first hour of the third day of November, when they won the World Series after Davis’ home run and a rain delay. The Cubs won the most games, won games by the biggest differential, gave up the fewest runs and scored the third-most runs.

They won their division by 17-and-a-half games over the Cardinals, making the team that won the most games in 2015 look like a broken-down Sham to the Cubs’ Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont (link here if you’re unfamiliar with the reference). No division winner has finished as far in front as the Cubs did since the 2002 Braves, who won’t be playing this year in the stadium they did then. Those Braves finished 19 games better than the Montreal Expos, a team which no longer exists.

There’s nothing to suggest the Cubs won’t do it again in 2017, even if the Cardinals have their centerfielder (let’s revisit in five years to see how the Jason Heyward for Dexter Fowler free-agent exchange works out). The Cubs have made the NL Central, recently the best division in baseball, the least suspenseful.

The Cubs return, but for Fowler, most of the championship team and add Kyle Schwarber, 0-for-4 in last year’s regular season, two-and-a-half more months of catcher Wilson Contreras, who didn’t join them until mid-June last year, and a couple of interesting if less-hyped-than-Ben Zobrist free-agent acquisitions.

John Jay, a Cardinal his first six seasons, was signed in case center fielder Albert Almora doesn’t do better than his career .322 minor-league on-base percentage. Jay has played half seasons in the last two because of injuries, but he’s a model of health compared to pitcher Brett Anderson, who made 31 starts in 2015 and 34 in 2012-14 and 2016 combined. When Anderson goes to the orthopedic surgeon, he fills out the form asking what ails him with an All of the Above.

It’s one of the advantages of having won 103 games and preserving the nucleus that did: you can take risks on the fragile.

Health — particularly new closer Wade Davis’ — is about all that’s keeping the Cubs from another 100-win season or close to it. The Cubs went 108 years between World Series titles, and until last November they were a little like Phil Mickelson predicting multiple major titles before he won the first.

Now that they’ve won one, they can win more.

Team song: Frank Sinatra: The Best is Yet to Come

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