Commentary

'Compelling' Cubs? Wait and see

These four storylines defined the first half and will shape the rest of the season

Updated: July 9, 2012, 1:27 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- At Cubs Convention, this is what team president Theo Epstein said about competing in his first season as designated savior:

"If we stay healthy, and one or two or three or four of the players we have actually take a big developmental step forward, I think you might look up and be surprised in the middle of the summer," he said.

On Opening Day, this is what team chairman Tom Ricketts said about his team's chances:

[+] EnlargeTom Ricketts
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastTom Ricketts couldn't come out and say it, but this season is a wash for the rebuilding Cubs.

"The fact is, I think this is a very compelling team," he said. "People are going to enjoy watching these guys play."

Are you surprised in a good way? Compelled? Have you enjoyed the first half of the "crap show," I mean the 2012 season?

The fact is, as Ricketts likes to say before presenting his opinion, the Cubs were surprisingly bad for most of the season and were only compelling in a macabre fascination to see if they would break the franchise record for losses. Despite a recent hot streak, that's still possible.

The fact is, for many reasons, most of which were necessary and defensible, this season was a wash, a chance to rebuild the organization while putting out a questionable major league product. Epstein or Ricketts couldn't come out and say it, but the only people who would enjoy this season are guys who like to prognosticate the future of minor leaguers.

Epstein likely will put together a roster that will make Cubs fans forget the doom and gloom of the past few years and Ricketts likely will cut some checks for free agents who will go down as Cubs heroes.

But that isn't this year.

The fact is, Epstein's pet hitter Anthony Rizzo could've helped at the beginning of the season. But now, with the team fighting for fifth place, the recently-promoted Rizzo is probably the only reason to watch a Cubs game, unless the hipsters are doing it ironically.

Going into the All-Star break, the Cubs are 33-52 and would have to go 25-52 to lose a team-record 104 games. All things remaining constant, I think the Cubs avoid that ignominious stat but if, as expected, they trade Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, and Jeff Samardzija doesn't reverse his recent slide, well, they'll need more than one Anthony Rizzo.

Speaking of Rizzo, let's go through four storylines that defined the first half and will continue to color the second half and beyond.

THE KID STAYS IN THE LINEUP

Rizzo's arrival in late June after dominating the Pacific Coast League was met with excitement and a dose of concerted finger-wagging from a bored media, as we propagated our idea that Rizzo was being dangerously viewed by the fans as some kind of savior, even though even the most obsessed Cubs fan knows there is nothing to save with the team wallowing in last place.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
AP Photo/Jim PrischingAnthony Rizzo gives Cubs fans a reason to watch in the second half of the season.

But like a lot of people, I was excited to see the kid come up for two reasons: 1) Call me crazy, but I like watching talented hitters; 2) It was nice to see the Cubs add rather than just subtract.

For all the talk about building for the future, it's always pleasant to see a good team in the present, and that Rizzo will be part of that future is all the more reason to watch.

Giving up Andrew Cashner, one of the few impact arms in the Cubs' system, for Rizzo was an easy decision for Epstein and his crew. Cashner throws hard, but Rizzo is a much safer bet and could fortify the lineup for a decade.

So far Rizzo has shined, hitting .354 with four home runs and nine RBIs in 12 games. He's gone hitless in only two games. The Cubs are 8-4 when he plays.

Last year's flop in San Diego might have humbled him a touch, but he's got a big league attitude, and that's in a good way. He and Starlin Castro have to lead in turning this club around.

While Rizzo's newness is giving fans a reason to care about the season, I don't think it will help once Bears training camp starts. The Cubs have drawn worse than average in Rizzo's first five home games, 35,617 per game versus a season average of 37,522. Overall, the Cubs are averaging 1,507 more fans than at this point last season.

WOOD. TRAVIS WOOD.

No, not just Kerry Wood. After a made-for-rubes moment at the Cubs Convention when a newly-signed Wood was introduced last to the cheering throngs, Kerry's latest tenure with the Cubs ended with a thud. It was time to quit. Not wanting to end his Wrigley tenure with a petulant demise, he pitched one last time against the White Sox, striking out a batter and walking off the field to hug his son in an unscripted moment that made the harshest cynics tear up.

[+] EnlargeTravis Wood
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhPerhaps the Travis Wood-Sean Marshall trade isn't as one-sided as many Cubs fans believed earlier in the season.

But while Wood is just hanging out at Wrigley now, Travis Wood has taken over Jeff Samardzija's role as Long-Haired Pitcher Who Ain't That Bad. Count me as one who rushed to judgment on the Sean Marshall for Travis Wood deal when the latter was demoted to the minors.

Wood came up in May and went 0-3 in his first six starts. But he's won his past four starts, giving up just three earned runs in his 26⅔ innings.

While the Kerry Wood deal was more of a PR move by a very PR-conscious owner, trading for Travis Wood is the kind of deal Epstein is trying to make to legitimize his major league team: picking up a young, cost-controlled starter with upside.

We'll be watching Wood and Samardzija in the second half to see if they can keep up and reverse the way they ended the first.

4-20

Baseball added a second wild card this season, but no one in the Cubs' relocated front office (across from Yak-Zies) was planning for that option. The Cubs' 3-11 start reduced expectations significantly. And after a blip of competency got them to 15-20, they lost 12 straight and 20 of 24 to go into June.

There were a lot of reasons the Cubs went south, one of them being Bryan LaHair, who made the All-Star Game via the players' vote, going 3-for-33 during the 12-game losing streak. But it wasn't any one person's fault. The Cubs' frailties were put on display.

Garza, the would-be ace, called his first half (4-6, 4.01 ERA) a "crap show," which is pretty fitting for the Cubs in general.

About that losing streak …

CURSE OF JOE RICKETTS

The Cubs' century-long World Series drought is firmly entrenched in bad management with a dose of bad luck, but some hold true to metaphysical reasons, as well. On May 17, the Cubs lost for the third straight time during the aforementioned losing streak, but before that game, the New York Times reported that Joe Ricketts, whose money was used to finance the purchase of the Cubs for his children, had commissioned a controversial ad campaign to target President Obama.

As it turned out, the attack ads were never officially approved or aired, but the firestorm over Ricketts' Super PAC (Political Action Committee) hindered the Cubs' work to gain some kind of public financing to renovate Wrigley Field, which is the team's biggest goal of the season.

The embarrassment over this situation forced Tom Ricketts to find friendly voices on the radio to assuage the public that his family is the baseball-loving Midwestern folks they've been billed as. He also went calling to African-American leaders in the city and state.

Beat writers and columnists, however, are still waiting to talk to him. And he's waiting to talk to someone, as well.

At last word, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, only the President's former chief of staff and the head of his re-election campaign, hasn't returned Tom Ricketts' calls. The Cubs need his help to get them the tax deal for the nine-figure renovations before going to the state legislature to get the deal financed.

Besides luring Epstein from Boston, Ricketts' biggest wins since getting the team have been land deals. He got the city of Mesa, Ariz., to fork over $99 million to help build a new spring training home, and he spent $20 million to buy the McDonald's property across the street from Wrigley, along with investments in rooftop buildings.

But the Wrigley deal is the key. Ricketts floated a plan to use amusement tax money to help pay for the renovation nearly two years ago.

This situation could be rectified in the fall, and I'm sure Tom Ricketts would like it done before his father really starts dropping money on the presidential election. This situation might be more closely watched than any September call-up. And I think it will, to use Tom's word, be more compelling.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.