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Phil Rogers: Cubs’ stumbling start could be blessing in disguise

This news story was published on April 20, 2012.
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By Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune –

In his Sunday columns, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe always uses one of the greatest phrases in journalism: “apropos of nothing.”

It’s great because then you can say whatever you want, on or off the subject, and there’s no expectation that your facts will carry much weight. The subject matter just has to be interesting, that’s all.

In that spirit, here’s the stat of the day: 10-28.

That was the combined record for the Cubs and the two teams that are central to their management axis, the Red Sox and Padres, after the Cubs’ loss Thursday to the Marlins, which was their fifth in a row.

Interpret these numbers however you will.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer did terrific work with the Red Sox and Padres, focusing on scouting and player development and getting impressive results (progress the Padres’ ownership issues and the Red Sox’s unproductive or injured free agents has masked). But it’s impossible to miss how all three of the Epstein/Hoyer teams have started the season.

With a day off Thursday before celebrating the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, the Red Sox still are stuck in the ditch they fell into last September, when Epstein was their general manager and Terry Francona was their manager. They’re 4-8. That’s a little better than the Cubs and Padres, who were both 3-10 entering Thursday night.

No one should draw any conclusions from 12 games, but the Red Sox record is surprising. Their 7-20 September a year ago was viewed widely as an aberration, and most expected the nucleus Epstein built to be strong enough for a rebound under new manager Bobby Valentine.

The guess here is that Valentine will get the Red Sox turned around. They have had 14 consecutive winning seasons, and while returning to the playoffs is no slam dunk you still would think the Red Sox will win 85-plus games.

Who knows how many the Padres and Cubs will lose?

The Padres are clearly the weakest team in the National League West, with a lineup that hasn’t been the same since low revenues left Hoyer with little choice but to trade Adrian Gonzalez.

The Cubs’ starting pitching is better than it was a year ago, but the bullpen badly misses Sean Marshall (traded to the Reds) and Jeff Samardzija (moved to the rotation) and the lineup scares no one. The Cubs are last in the majors in home runs, with Alfonso Soriano homerless and Bryan LaHair (two) the only player to hit more than one.

Because of the improved starting pitching, I figured the Cubs would be better than they were last season. But the stumbling start has increased the chances of this being an awful season for them — say 67-95?

Don’t expect Epstein to do much to save the season. He’s at the start of a five-year commitment, and he and Hoyer are smart. If the best you can be is 77-85, you might as well lose 95 and pick near the top of next year’s draft. That’s the surest place to find young studs, and the Cubs are going nowhere until they add a handful of them.

Epstein and Hoyer know their calling is to find them, not to placate the fans who demand instant gratification. They took on a huge job, and in the end won’t be remembered for the record in 2012, no matter how bad it is. In fact, if it is bad enough for them to get one of the first two or three picks in next year’s draft, that ultimately may be looked at as a blessing.

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