When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer came to Chicago in late 2011, for the first time in a while -- a pretty long while, if you wanted to forget about that magical 2008 season where the Cubs won 97 games during the regular season and then were perfunctorily swept out of the Divisional round by the Dodgers -- the answer to the question, "What's wrong with the Cubs?" wasn't "Well, how much time do you have?" Sadly, the honeymoon hasn't lasted very long; less than two years later, you ask that question and suddenly everyone's back to checking their watches.
Putting aside any debates on metaphysics or goats -- and even in 2013, when people talk about the Cubs, there are almost always debates on metaphysics or goats -- Chicago still has a rather varied laundry list of problems, a number of which it's not possible or fair to pin on the current front office.
For example, the Cubs' farm system was rather barren when Epstein and Hoyer took over; when 2011 started, the Cubs' top prospect was a pitcher named Chris Archer, and their fourth best prospect was a shortstop named Hak-Ju Lee; eight days later the Cubs, under the administration of previous General Manager Jim Hendry, traded both of them to Tampa Bay for starter Matt Garza. With Garza's help attained at the cost of only 2 of their top 5 prospects, the Cubs team that had won 75 games the previous season went on to win… 71. The Cubs got a top line starter -- not an ace, but a front of the rotation guy -- but completely failed to build a team around him. (Dayton Moore's Royals took notes, but apparently learned the wrong lesson.)
That left outfielder Brett Jackson as the de facto top prospect in the system at the end of the year; Jackson would show in late 2012 that he wasn't yet ready for any major league responsibilities -- and might never be. So the Cubs front office set about acquiring guys like Jorge Soler and Enrique Acosta through (very expensive) international free agency deals before the caps imposed by the new CBA took effect, traded for Braves pitcher Arodys Vizcaino and Padres first base prospect Anthony Rizzo, a favorite of ex-Padres GM Jed Hoyer (who is currently trying to deal Garza to the Padres for more of his guys), and drafted well at the top of the first round, getting outfielder Albert Almora in 2012 and third baseman Kris Bryant with the second overall pick this year.
There are definite problems with the system -- there wasn't much pitching in it even before Vizcaino lost all of 2013 to additional surgery on the same arm he'd had Tommy John on the previous year, and now their highest-rated pitching prospect is a kid named Pierce Johnson, who's still in A-ball -- but they pale in comparison to the still-ongoing horror show at the major league level, and this is something for which Hoyer and his boss can take some of the blame.
Not for the Alfonso Soriano deal, however; that contract was signed well before their time, and they've done their best to live with it in its golden years. Carlos Marmol, designated for assignment yesterday after a truly putrid 2013 campaign and years of wildly unacceptable walk rates, wasn't their fault either; his ludicrous three-year, $20-million extension was signed in the last days of the Hendry administration, and they tried their best to move him -- the only problem being that the only team that would have him, the Los Angeles Angels, then cash-heavy and with a gaping wound in their pitching staff where a bullpen should be, was only willing to give up Dan Haren for the privilege. The Cubs took one look at Haren's medicals and decided they were better off holding onto Marmol, hoping he'd have a good half-season, and trying to flip him at the deadline. The fact that Kevin Gregg -- yeah, that Kevin Gregg -- has now been the Cubs closer for over two months should tell you how well that worked out for them.
Gregg's "resurgence" -- as an aside, no one should buy into his 1.11 ERA with 11 saves in 24 ⅓ innings pitched, though someone eventually will because of not only their own closer madness but the way the Cubs will point to his elevated strikeout-to-walk ratio as a sign that something's finally clicked for him -- leads in to another problem the Cubs have had under Hoyer and Epstein: injuries. Matt Garza's been on and off the disabled list ever since 2011, stymying any chance of the Cubs getting back value similar to what they gave up for him in the first place (the latest rumor is that Chicago's targeting San Diego outfielder Reymond Fuentes, another Hoyer guy, who is on his second try at AA).
The original backup plan if Marmol was terrible, reliever Kyuji Fujikawa, only got a couple of saves before he went on the DL in late May, and he's now out of the mix after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Scott Baker, a one-year sign-and-flip candidate coming off an elbow injury with the Twins, has stayed out due to injury and likely won't be back in any sort of time to convince teams to give up talent to take a chance on him. David DeJesus was having a fine season until he suffered a gruesome collision with a wall, landing him on the disabled list for what's expected to be about a month. That leaves their trade chips down to Nate Schierholtz and Scott Feldman, both of whom are having fine seasons -- but as far as the major league squad is concerned, that just means they'll be off the team in late July rather than right now.
When a team's fortunes are discussed primarily in how easy it will be to trade off all their veteran talent for youth, it's not expected that the team will actually be that good; however, the Cubs have made a number of moves that show they expected to at least be flirting with .500 right now. There must have been something Hoyer liked about Edwin Jackson that made it worth signing him to the most lucrative of the offseason for a pitcher not named Zack Greinke; 4 years, $52 million, and so far in Chicago his ERA is 5.49. Moreover, the Cubs are committed to young infielders Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, buying out all of their arbitration years and the beginning of their free agency as if they were either established stars or talents on the level of Evan Longoria or Matt Moore when they took their first arb-buyout deals from the Tampa Bay Rays.
The expectations surrounding the two of them have ballooned to unrealistic proportions -- Castro's a particularly risky player given that his skillset absolutely requires him to hit .300 to even be a starter, since he doesn't walk, he doesn't hit for power, and he's gotten none of the polish you'd expect a shortstop to have in his defensive game since the Jim Hendry Cubs rushed him up to the majors so quickly, but people were looking at him like a future batting champion and dreaming on what'll happen to his power when he fills out (here's what'll happen: he'll move off shortstop, where he's already a walking disaster). Even last year when he hit .283, he was merely acceptable in an offensively-depressed league; now that he's hitting .228, his entire game has collapsed. That's the not the case for complete players -- no complete player is going to be good as a .228 hitter, but no complete player loses all of his OBP and SLG value when he stops being able to slap balls into the outfield, no matter how many of them turn into doubles. For better or worse, he's a Cub until either 2019 or when they can find someone willing to trade for him.
I've already gone over my concerns about Rizzo -- particularly his future against left-handed pitching -- but he's actually doing better against them than righties this year. Of course, for a power-hitting first baseman locked up until the end of the decade he's not playing well against either, but at least he can still take a walk.
The bright spot of the year so far has been pitcher Travis Wood, who the Cubs got from the Cincinnati Reds in the Sean Marshall trade -- he's been exceptional for Chicago so far and he's just entering arbitration, which hopefully the Cubs can restrain themselves from unnecessarily buying out this time. There's no cause to trade him since with the resources the Cubs bring to bear the team should by all rights be good in a year or two, and while it's unrealistic to expect a guy with Wood's profile to continue putting up a sub-3 ERA, if he's able to sustain something near this level of success he'll be a good middle rotation starter. But that's basically the Cubs in a nutshell -- even the nice things have to be evaluated in terms of their future potential, because right now in Wrigleyville there's just losing, metaphysics, and goats.