Good thing for the Chicago Cubs they say their focus is on the road ahead.
Because objects in the rearview are a lot closer than they appear.
When struggling Cubs starter Jameson Taillon and beleaguered reliever Michael Fulmer blew the lead in an 8-5 loss to the Reds at Wrigley Field Saturday night, it dumped the Cubs behind both the Reds and Cardinals into last place in the National League Central.
So much for $300 million offseasons.
“It’s been tough. The results definitely haven’t been great,” said $68 million free agent Taillon, who was talking about the slumping Cubs and their 10-22 slide since a high-water mark of 12-7, but who might as well have been talking about his own 8.04-ERA struggles since signing a four-year contract.
Saturday’s instant splat from third to last in the five-team, second-tier division might not spell doom and gloom on Memorial Day weekend in the context of a 2023 season that has four months to go (no matter how much of a case the Cubs’ eyesore of a bullpen is making).
But if recent indications mean much, those objects in the mirror might be closer when it comes to the longer road of Jed Hoyer’s Next Great Cubs Team and what might be a steeper hill to climb toward October in the National League Central.
Much of the Reds’ identified next-gen core is on the team now, including 100-mph starter Hunter Greene, or on the doorstep at Triple A, including the game’s No. 1-ranked prospect, shortstop Elly De La Cruz.
And after the Reds won the first two games of this series, they’re 16-14 since a 7-15 start.
“They’ve got some power arms. The at-bats are real. They’re athletic. They can steals bases,” said Cubs manager David Ross, whose club is 8-19 over roughly the same stretch.
“I definitely think they’ve improved on the bases and are playing a little bit different game than they used to play at their place, trying to slug you,” Ross said. “They’ve got a mixed bag of really talented players, starting at the top with (2021 Rookie of the Year Jonathan) India.”
India responded to Ross’ pregame shoutout with his second career two-homer game, including the go-ahead two-run shot off Fulmer in the fifth.
Ross wouldn’t speculate on whether the Reds might be closer to becoming a playoff threat than many thought when last year’s 100-game losers opened the season.
He wasn’t asked what might have been the most relevant follow-up to that question for the Cubs: Could the Reds be closer to reaching the playoffs than the Cubs, who have a three-week opening surge and five-week slump to show for a $300 million winter so far?
Reds manager David Bell, who was asked that question, demurred but did talk about the value of playing to win now, maybe even making noise in the division this year — which would be at least a year ahead of any competitive projections originating outside the Cincinnati clubhouse.
“We all have experienced where other people may think we’re a year away or whatever,” said Bell, who spent the 2013 season on the Cubs coaching staff. “We have good reason not to see it that way, because we know things can happen very quick, and we’re going to continue to try to make improvements every day, and over the course of time our team may change a little bit. And that’ll be for a good reason. So we’re gonna try to put ourselves in position to make that happen now.”
That perspective gets fed in large part by the fact the Reds have aggressively integrated much of their top young players into a big-league mix this year that already looks a lot like the vision — however inexperienced — of the Next Great Reds Team.
“It absolutely does,” Bell said, adding a lot of his young team’s losses have been close enough to suggest a larger breakthrough is possible sooner rather than later.
“Things can happen fast,” Bell said. “We have a chance to make that happen this year.”
In other words: One more NL Central obstacle to add for the Cubs to overcome in their quest for a return to October glory as they try to emerge from their second tank job in a decade.
And their firsthand glimpse of that newest obstacle comes this Memorial Day Weekend — a classic time on the baseball calendar for teams’ first, major self-evaluations of who they are and where they’re headed the rest of the season.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Ross said. “I’m sure of that.”
He also seemed sure the Reds are no longer a team anyone can sleep on, any more than the defending Central-champion Cardinals or Milwaukee Brewers with all their top-shelf pitching.
“We give them credit. We know they’re good,” Ross said. “I don’t give the defending champs more credit than I do the Cincinnati Reds. The names are probably different because they’ve gone out on the big stages and proven it. But on paper, everyone’s really talented and has a chance to kick your tail.
“You saw it yesterday,” Ross said of Friday’s 9-0 loss, in which Cubs starter Justin Steele didn’t get out of the fourth inning. “That’s a really good pitcher they beat for us yesterday that hadn’t been hit around like that at all this year, and probably in longer than a year.”
If All-Star selections for pitchers were a 10-start process, Steele would be in the discussion to start; that’s how good he’s been this year — 6-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 10 starts until Friday.
Even after the once-a-year clunker, Steele is 8-4 with a 2.19 ERA over his past 21 starts, dating to last June.
“It’s just one game. He’s a great player,” Greene said.
Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart came up with the Reds and saw much of the current young core coming by the time he left the organization after 2021.
“The three arms they have at the top (of the rotation) with (Nick) Lodolo, and Hunter Greene and (Graham) Ashcraft are three of the better young starting pitchers in the leagues in terms of being on the same team,” Barnhart said. “And obviously they paid Hunter. He’s going to be there for a long time.”
Talk about closer than things might appear.
Maybe the Reds are closer to being a threat in October than anybody thinks?
“I don’t think that’s inaccurate. I don’t think that’s inaccurate whatsoever,” Barnhart said. “They’ve put together a group that really doesn’t know anything different. It’s kind of like playing with house money. Especially with a talented group of players, that could be a scary model for other teams (to face).”
Said Bell: “Every team has their own plan to succeed. I understand ours. We’re just trying to make ours happen faster, faster than maybe anyone expects.”
Source: Berkshire mont