Cubs' quick turnaround has been remarkable

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Cubs' quick turnaround has been remarkable

By Alex Roux

Late June is still relatively early in a Major League Baseball season, but not too soon to make valid assessments about certain teams.

Some could have been predicted as early as the end of last season: The 2015 Cardinals would be good, and the 2015 Phillies would be bad. But some developments have been harder to predict, like the premature renaissance of the Chicago Cubs.

Here we are three weeks into June, and baseball minds agree: the Cubs are legit. They’re currently 37-30 and holding the second Wild Card spot in the National League. They’ve shown even greater flashes of promise along the way, teasing fans with the possibility that they might get even better this year.

Everyone knew that the Cubs would eventually be good. Conventional baseball wisdom had them making serious noise in 2016, 2017, and beyond, with 2015 being much more uncertain. Even to an optimistic fan like myself, the speed and tenacity of the Cubs’ turnaround has been remarkable.

I’ve found myself living and dying with every game once again, as if competitive baseball never left the North Side after the 98-win 2008 campaign. But it did leave, and as awful baseball settled in for over half a decade, it looked like the Cubs would never be serious about winning.

But now, for the first time in five years, the Cubs are playing for playoff positioning in October rather than draft positioning in June. Looking at where the Cubs were just one year ago should give any fan a huge sense of appreciation for what executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been able to do.

Even glancing at the Cubs lineup from one year ago today elicits dry heaves. On June 21, 2014, Darwin Barney was the team’s starting second baseman. Eli Whiteside was the catcher, and Nate Schierholtz pinch-hit late in a tight game. Jeff Samardzija was still the ace of the staff, and most Cubs fans had never heard of Addison Russell.

At the time, I was sick of waiting for a winning team to materialize. I wanted prospects Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler called up now, now, now. But Epstein and Hoyer had a plan, and the current version of the North Siders began to come together in early July when Samardzija and Jason Hammel were dealt to the Oakland A’s for Russell and two other minor leaguers.

Since that deal went down, nearly everything has gone about as well as any Cubs fan could have hoped. The Cubs closed the 2014 season playing decent ball, and a handful of their highly-touted prospects got a taste of the bigs. Jake Arrieta established himself as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Manager Joe Maddon miraculously fell into the Cubs’ lap, and Jon Lester unthinkably signed with the unproven franchise in the offseason.

And now we get to watch one of the future faces of Major League Baseball, Kris Bryant, patrol the hot corner every day. Anthony Rizzo is putting together an MVP-caliber season, and the rest of the Epstein/Hoyer puzzle has fallen into place nicely, at least for now.

Don’t be fooled; I’m very aware that this can all still fall apart. The bullpen has been shaky at times, and an injury or two could decimate the Cubs’ playoff hopes. Pittsburgh, St. Louis and defending champion San Francisco may end up being too good for the Cubs to catch this year, anyway.

But I’m just happy that they’re here. They’re relevant. Looking at the big picture, that’s a big accomplishment in itself for this franchise.

To sum up the last calendar year, I have to borrow some of Maddon’s favorite adjectives. It’s been unbelievable, fantastic and fabulous.

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@aroux94