Their odds to win the World Series are down to 12:1, The Sporting News picked them to win the World Series and even Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system predicts them to finish within a game of the second wild card spot in the National League.

So what do we think realistic expectations for the 2015 Cubs should be?

They took last year’s dogshit team and added rookies to right field, second base, third starting pitcher and soon third base.  They added one of the best starting pitchers in the big leagues, a competent centerfielder who actually gets on base, a pair of new catchers and the best manager (well, maybe other than Bruce Bochy) in the game.

What’s that get you?

Last year, 88 games got you the second Wild Card spot.  In 2013 it took 90.  Over the last five years you’d have needed an average of 89 wins to get the second wild card.

The Cubs went a whopping 73-89 last year.  So are these additions enough to make up the 16 games they’ll need?

Well, Jon Lester won 16 games last year…so, there you go!  Case closed.

OK, that’s now how it works.  It’s not like whoever else got Lester’s starts would be winless (though, these are the Cubs, anything’s possible), and you can’t just pencil him in for that many wins anyway.

Let’s look at how many Cubs teams over their recent history have seen win improvements of 16 or more games.

Since 1967, the Cubs have done that nine times with an average increase of 24 wins when they did it.  We can probably throw out two of them, however.

The 1995 Cubs had 24 more wins than the 1994 Cubs, but the ’94 Cubs were not just terrible, the season ended after only 113 games because of a strike.

At least the ’95 Cubs ended up with a winning record (73-71) and somewhat in a playoff race (they finished four games behind the wild card Rockies, and on the brink of elimination they won eight straight from September 22 through the 29th).  But they were not only behind the Rockies that whole time, they also finished behind the Astros, they were behind both of them in the standings every day after September 4.

The ’82 Cubs finished a lousy 73-89 but that was an incredible 35 more wins than in 1981.  Not only were the 1981 Cubs terrible, the season was divided into halves because of the strike and they sucked in both.  They were sixth in the NL East in the first half and fifth in the second, and won only 38 of the 106 games they played.

So, let’s focus on the seven other times it happened.

1967 – 87-74, third place, National League, +28 wins over 1966

The bones of the 1969 Cubs were in place by 1967, and this team was actually the second most successful of that run that went through 1972 where the Cubs were always competent, and occasionally excellent.

Ron Santo hit 31 homers, Billy Williams added 28 and Ernie Banks hit 23.  The Cubs had five regulars with OPS+ of over 100, including Randy Hundley (102), Ernie (112), Santo (153), Williams (130) and the immortal Adolfo Phillips (136).  Santo finished fourth in the MVP voting behind Orlando Cepeda, Tim McCarver and Roberto Clemente.  Either Santo or Hank Aaron (finished fifth) probably should have won it.

Phillips had a great year.  His slash line was excellent .268/.384/.458/.842 and he walked 80 times in 144 games.  Leo Durocher was so enamored with Phillips’ ability to get on base he batted him 8th in 140 games.  Instead, he batted Don Kessinger leadoff.  Kessinger may have been the worst regular in the National League that year.  His OPS+ was 55.  Fifty-five!  His slash line was a horrendous .231/.275/.272/.548.  So, you bat the guy with the .275 on base average leadoff in 137 games and bat the guy with the .384 on base average eighth 140 times?  Gee, why didn’t that work?

Kessinger would make the all star team in six of the next eight years, but he was never much of a threat with the bat.  His career on base average was a middling .314 and it was actually higher than his pathetic .312 slugging.  For his career his OPS+ was 72.  100 is league average.  Kessinger led off in 1153 big league games and his on base average in those games was .318.  I really can’t understand why this franchise hasn’t dominated.

Fergie Jenkins won 20 games and only threw 20 complete games.  Some 21-year-old punk kid named Kenny Holtzman went 9-0 with a 2.53 ERA, and Rich Nye won 13 games.

The Cubs won 87 games and still finished 14.5 behind the Cardinals who won the pennant by three games over the Giants, and went right to the World Series where they beat Boston in seven.

1984 – 96-65, first place, National League East, +25 wins over 1983

Five of the eight Cubs regulars had OPS+ of at least 100, and two others were close: Ryne Sandberg (140), Leon Durham (136), Gary Matthews (129), Ron Cey (107), Keith Moreland (103), Jody Davis (99), Bob Dernier (97).  Only Larry Bowa (49) sucked.

The Cubs led the NL in runs and walks (what a novel idea) and finished second in homers, on base average, slugging, OPS and total bases.  Nobody drove in 100 runs, but six guys drove in at least 80.  They also finished fourth in the NL in stolen bases with 154.  Imagine that, a Cubs team that finished second in homers and fourth in stolen bases?

Four starters posted ERA+ of better than 100: Rick Sutcliffe (144), Dennis Eckersley (128), Scott Sanderson (124), and Steve Trout (114), and four relievers did, too: Warren Brusstar (126), Rich Bordi (113), Lee Smith (107), and Tim Stoddard (102).

Bordi was arguably the Cubs best reliever that year, but struggled in September (9.82 ERA in 7 appearances) and was left off the playoff roster.

Where the 1967 Cubs were a growing up version of the 1966 team, the 1984 Cubs were basically the 1981 Phillies B-team.  Sandberg and Bowa came over from Philadelphia in 1982, Dernier and Matthews in early 1984 and Moreland before the 1982 season.  The team was designed to be a stopgap, but caught fire thanks to Sandberg’s MVP season, Sutcliffe’s incredible 16-1 run after a May trade that won him the Cy Young and a great renaissance season out of Matthews.

The full cast was brought back in 1985 (which had not been the original plan) and finished 77-84 and in fourth in the NL East.  They were awful in 1986, and 1987 and didn’t show any real promise until 1988.

1989 – 93-69, first place, National League East, +16 wins over 1988

It will be tempting to look for parallels between this team and the 2015 edition.  The 1988 Cubs finished roughly where the 2014 Cubs did (well, four more wins) and the division was deep and good with the Cardinals and Mets recent pennant winners (1985 and 1986), and the Pirates just about to start a run of dominance.

The Cubs had six regulars with OPS+ of 100 or better: Dwight Smith (141), Mark Grace (139), Ryne Sandberg (134), Andre Dawson (114), Shawon Dunston (100) and Jerome Walton (100).  They also got a crazy good 92 games out of Lloyd McClendon (136) and 26 games of a 116 OPS+ from Luis Salazar.

Much of this success landed in the Cubs laps.  If their opening day outfield of Dawson, Mitch Webster and Walton had stayed healthy, Smith and McClendon’s contributions would have been minimal.  Then again, if General Manager Jim Frey hadn’t traded Rafael Palmeiro to Texas and Dave Martinez to Montreal for (allegedly) screwing around with a Hall of Famer’s first wife, the offense could have been even better for many years.

The Cubs got one last healthy season out of Sutcliffe (16-11, 3.66 ERA in 34 starts), a second straight dominant season out of Greg Maddux (19-12, 2.95 ERA in 35 starts) and a ‘where the Hell did that come from’ 18-7, 3.14 ERA in 33 starts from Mike Bielecki.  Frey’s refusal to add a starting pitcher late in the season was puzzling and might have helped in the playoffs.  Though his acquisition of Salazar gave the offense a needed jolt late in the season since Vance Law was pretty useless all season long.

With good, young players like Walton and Smith added to a still in his prime Sandberg and established young stars in Maddux and Grace the future looked very good for the Cubs post 1989.  But it wasn’t.  Maddux was gone after the 1992 season, Walton and Smith both flopped and a shoulder injury to Damon Berryhill derailed a promising career and made him basically a career backup.

The Cubs had an eccentric manager in 1989 as they do now.  But at least Joe Maddon doesn’t have a plate in his head.  (That we know of.)

1998 – 90-73, second place, National League Central (wild card), +22 wins over 1997

Kerry Wood won Rookie of the Year, Sammy Sosa won the MVP and a truly motley crew of Cubs somehow stole a playoff spot from the Giants.  Sosa, bigger than we’d ever seen him, was suddenly the best player in the sport.  He hit 66 homers, drove in 158 runs and posted a whopping 1.024 OPS (160 OPS+).  Mark Grace (126), Henry Rodriguez (121), Jose Hernandez (100) and Mickey Morandini (100) also posted OPS+ of at least 100.

The Cubs rode the unlikely death rattle of Gary Gaetti’s career (154 OPS+ in 37 games after the Cardinals released him) to fill a gaping hole at third base and got similar production out of Glenallen Hill (154 OPS+ in 48 games.)  But the unsung hero (mostly because he dropped a flyball with four games to go in the season in Milwaukee) was Brant Brown, who played out of position all year (he was an excellent defensive first baseman on a team that featured the best defensive first baseman in the game) in the outfield and posted a 118 OPS+ and 14 homers in only 380 at bats.  He won three games with walk-off homers.

To me the most amazing thing about the 1998 Cubs is that down the stretch they relied almost exclusively on two pitchers.  Over the last 20 days of the season, Terry Mulholland pitched in nine games.  Big deal you say?  That was seven relief appearances and two starts (and not short starts, seven innings in one and eight in the other), oh and he pitched in game 163 against the Giants on ZERO days rest.  Tell Madison Bumgarner to shove it up his ass.  Rod Beck was even busier.  He pitched 12 times over the last 19 days, and in the final six days he pitched five times, including one blown save (he was on the mound when Brown dropped the ball in Milwaukee), a two and two third inning appearance in Houston on the last day of the regular season (an 11 inning loss–started by Mulholland) and then got the save the next night in the play-in game.

The ’98 Cubs were an incredibly fun team to watch and root for.  Hell, the three games September 11, 12 and 13 at Wrigley against Milwaukee alone were incredible.  The Cubs lost the opener 11-10, won the second game 15-12 and won the finale 11-10 in 10 innings.  The Brewers scored 33 runs in three days and only won one game.  Both Cubs wins were on walkoff homers.  Cub-for-a-month Orlando Merced hit a three run bomb to win the Saturday game, and Mark Grace hit a two out walkoff homer on Sunday.  In the three game series, Sosa was 6-12 (.500) with three homers, three walks and eight RBI.

Even more unbelievable for Brown than him dropping a flyball in Milwaukee with four games to go in the season to allow three runs to score and blow a two run Cubs lead with two outs in the ninth, was the next night when a bird attacked him in left field…in the Astrodome!

The Cubs got swept in the playoffs by the Braves, but that was immaterial.  They were so decimated pitching wise by their tortured march (stumble, really) into the playoffs that Mark Clark was their game one starter.  The fact they even made it there was a miracle.

2001 – 88-74, third place NL Central, +23 wins over 2000

The second year of the Don Baylor era saw the Cubs implausibly in first place for most of the first four months of the season, only to collapse at the end and finish in third place.  Truth is, they weren’t good enough to actually win the division, but played over their skis early on before getting passed by the Cardinals and Astros and missing out on the playoffs.  Watching last year’s Milwaukee Brewers ride a hot start (they were ten games under .500 from May 1 to the end of the season) for a long time only to get passed by the Cardinals and Pissburgh reminded me very much of this team.  Bad news for this year’s Brewers.  The 2002 Cubs were horrible.

The 2001 Cubs spent 112 days in first place, and on June 22 they had a six game lead in the division.  How did they do that?

Well, Sammy Sosa, mostly.  If not for some hump named Barry Bonds, Sosa would have easily been the NL MVP.  His numbers, on a team that had nothing around him were amazing.

Sosa hit .328 with 64 homers, 160 RBI and his slash line was .328/.437/.737/1.174.  His OPS plus was TWO HUNDRED THREE!  Check out the rest of the Cubs lineup, though:

C – Todd Hundley/Joe Girardi/Robert Machado
1B – Matt Stairs/Fred McGriff
2B – Eric Young
SS – Ricky Gutierrez
3B – Bill Mueller/Ron Coomer
LF – Rondell White/Delino DeShields (no shit)
CF – Gary Matthews Jr.

Hundley hit .174 and this was the year he passed out behind the plate in St. Louis sweating out whatever he drank and/or snorted the night before.

McGriff didn’t show up until July 29 because he held up his trade for a week trying to decide if he wanted to leave Tampa for an actual pennant race.  He didn’t do anything, really until the last 15 games of the season when he hit seven of his homers and drove in 18 runs.  He was awesome once the Cubs landed in third place.  Not so much his first 34 games there.

Mueller was hitting .317, with a .905 OPS and playing Gold Glove defense when he chased a foul ball and slid into the rolled up tarp in St. Louis on May 13, broke his kneecap and was out until August 13.  He hit .262 with a .751 OPS the rest of of the way.  The next year the Cubs gave him to the Giants in September.  Gave him to them.  A year after that?  He won the batting title and a World Series with the Red Sox.

Rondell was awesome when he was healthy, but he only started 88 games.  When he was actually able to play he hit .307/.371/.529/.900.  Delino DeShields was starting in in the OF and 2B in big games down the stretch. Oh, boy.

Pitching wise, Jon Lieber won 20 games and was never the same after Baylor let him go back on the mound after a 90 minute rain delay in a win over the Reds.  Jason Bere somehow won 11 games and most famously left a game he was leading 3-0 after seven shutout innings and 12 strikeouts, only to see Jeff Fassero give up a grand slam to Ryan Klesko and the Cubs lost 4-3.

Kerry Wood was 12-6 with a 3.36 ERA, but missed basically all of August, while the Cubs were starting to circle the drain.

The bullpen was a mess all year.  Flash Gordon came back after missing all of the 2000 season to have a good year, but he got hurt in early September and missed the rest of the season.  He had 27 saves and Jeff Fassero had 12.  But 2001 will be remembered for Ed Lynch’s panicked trades.

He traded Jon Garland to the White Sox to get the great Matt Karchner, and traded Todd Noel, Kevin Orie and Justin Speier for Felix Heredia.  Garland would have been handy for the Cubs the next ten years, and Noel was also a top prospect, but never panned out.  Karchner was terrible, and Heredia was worse.


Future folk hero Joe Borowski was called up to make an emergency spot start against the Giants.  He gave up six runs in just over an inning.  That was his only appearance in 2001.

I can distinctly remember wondering if the long delay in the season after the horrific events of 9/11 shut down baseball for nine days if the Cubs would somehow regroup.  They’d fallen out of first place on August 18, but were in the Wild Card lead until September 9.  The delay didn’t help, as they finished five full games behind the Cardinals and Astros who tied and split the division/wild card.  Even then, the Cubs were a game behind the Giants.  One indelible moment was Sosa homering in the first game after 9/11 and on his way around the bases he grabbed a little American Flag from first base coach Billy Williams (Sammy had given it to Billy to keep in his pocket, just in case he homered).

The 2002 Cubs were awful, and Baylor basically quit, getting himself canned after 83 games (only 34 of them wins).  Bruce Kimm got the interim job and pulled a massive asshole move when he asked for Ron Santo’s number 10 (which the Cubs were planning on retiring and eventually did at the end of the next season) so he could “honor” Jim Leyland.  Fuck Bruce Kimm, and fuck the Cubs for letting him have that number.

2003 – 88-74, first place National League Central, +21 wins over 2002

Here’s the shame of 2003.  It was an awesome season, full of very un-Cubs like moments.  None more exciting than the five game series with the Cardinals that wrapped around Labor Day and included Dusty Baker nearly beating Tony LaRussa’s ass, an extra inning walk-off from Sammy Sosa, and a truly iconic, dominant Mark Prior pitching performance.  The Cubs won four of the five (and a bad call cost them the one they did lose) and that’s about the time we all figured out they might actually be for real.

The key to the season was Jim Hendry’s best trade (and he had a few good ones in his day), stealing E-ramis Ramirez with Kenny Lofton from Pissburgh.  Lofton plugged a gaping hole at the top of the lineup and in center, and E-ramis was one of baseball’s best third basemen for a decade.  The emergence of Prior as an elite pitcher nearly breaks your heart now. So much wasted talent, through no fault of his own, but with a shit ton that could be heaped on Dusty.  The Cubs swept a doubleheader at home on the last Saturday of the season to clinch the Central over Houston and were supposed to get whacked by the 101-win Atlanta Barves.  Kerry Wood was great in the series, winning twice and Prior outpitched my beloved Greggie (with a complete game two hitter) in game three.  The Cubs blew game four at home and had to go back to Atlanta,where we all knew they’d get beat…but they didn’t.  Wood took care of that and the city of Chicago had its first postseason series win since 1917.

So that’s all great stuff.  But we all know how the NLCS against Florida ended, and as a result, we not only don’t look back fondly on 2003, we really don’t look back at all.

Lost in the fetid aftermath of games six and seven were the heroes of game three, which was a win that suddenly made it feel like the Cubs were actually good enough and tough enough to get to the World Series.  The Cubs blew game one when Carlos Zambrano couldn’t make a 4-0 lead hold up and even after Sosa’s two out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth tied it, Dusty’s stupidity and Mark Guthrie’s inability to pitch cost them the game.  The Cubs blew out the Marlins in game two, and Dusty had Prior pitch into the eighth, even though the Cubs led 11-0 in the fifth.

Game three had it all.  Sosa put the Cubs up 1-0 in the first driving in Lofton with a single.  The Cubs went up 2-0 in the second on a Kerry Wood sac fly.  The Marlins made it 2-1 in the bottom of the second, and it stayed that way until the seventh when the Marlins got two off of Wood on an RBI groundout by Luis Castillo and an RBI single by Pudge Rodriguez.

In the top of the eighth, Tom Goodwin got the most famous pinch hit triple in Cubs history with one out and Randall Simon should have cemented his folklore status forever by crushing a two run homer to right off the immortal Chad Fox.

The Marlins tied it in the bottom of the eighth when Todd Hollandsworth got a two-out RBI pinch single off The Farns.

Sweaty Joe Borowski pitched an eventful ninth, escaping a bases loaded jam of his own creation by getting Mike Mordecai to fly out to Lofton.

Borowski was left in to pitch the tenth and he got the Marlins 1-2-3, helped greatly by the fact Lenny Harris was one of the three.

In the top of the eleventh, Lofton hit a one out single and then Doug Glanville, just an hour after Goodwin’s most famous pinch hit triple in Cubs postseason history, topped it with his own.  Glanville’s triple scored Lofton and put the Cubs up 5-4.

Mike Remlinger came in to the pitch the bottom of the eleventh, and it was a clusterfuck.

With one out, he struck out Luis Castillo but Castillo reached on a dropped third strike past Gabor Bako.  Pudge grounded back to Remlinger with one out and Castillo advanced to second.  That’s when all hell broke loose.

Derrek Lee hit a topper to E-ramis who didn’t handle it cleanly and had no play at first.  The Marlins were going to have first and second with two outs and Miguel Cabrera up, but Castillo thought E-ramis was going to throw to first so he bolted for third.  E-ramis looked shocked to see Castillo running right at him, and Castillo was equally shocked to see E-ramis still had the ball.  He turned and ran back to second, but E-ramis threw to Mark Grudzielanek who turned Castillo around and threw back to E-ramis who easily tagged him out to the end the game.

The Cubs won the next day 8-4, getting a grand slam (the only one in Cubs playoff history) from E-ramis in the first and never looking back.  With a 3-1 lead, Zambrano, Prior and Wood lined up to pitch the last three and two of those at Wrigley, Goodwin, Borowski, Glanville and Simon were ready to accept their roles as Cubs heroes and legends for life.

But we remember how it ended.

But how well do we remember how it got there in the first place?

2007 – 85-77, first place NL Central, +19 wins over 2007

This season alone is why I get pissed off when people act like Lou Piniella didn’t do anything in his four seasons with the Cubs.  Take a look at this roster and tell me how, even in an off year for the Cardinals and Astros, this team made the playoffs?

Michael Barrett caught the most games, Jock Jones ended up playing centerfield, Ryan Theriot was the full-time shortstop and put up a whopping 71 OPS+.  Sean Marshall ended up making 19 starts and Rich Hill made 32.

They won because E-ramis had a great year, Derrek Lee had almost as great a year, and after a slow start and then an injury, Alfonso Soriano was awesome in May and June, then cooled off in July and August, only to throw the team on his back in September, hitting .320/.354/.754/1.108 with FOURTEEN homers and 27 RBI.

Zambrano was the ace winning 18 games, Ted Lilly won 15, Jason Marquis won 12 and Hill won 11.  But they were so starved for pitching that late in the year they had to trade for Steve Trachsel (did you remember that?)  He put up a tidy 8.81 ERA in four starts.

Ryan Dempster almost was moved to the rotation during the season, but Lou changed his mind and they didn’t do it until the next spring.  Dempster did not have a good year as closer losing seven games and he had an ERA of 4.73.  Remember that game in Philadelphia where he walked the bases loaded and somehow weaseled out of it?

The real weapon in the bullpen were Carlos Marmol (Remember when he was incredible?  Because he was.)  Marmol had a 1.43 ERA in 69 innings over 59 games and he struck out 96.  He was nearly impossible to hit.  Well, until future strikeout king Mark Reynolds turned one around on him in game one of the NLDS.

Bob Howry and Mike Wuertz had good years out of the bullpen, but Scott “Stevie” Eyre didn’t.  Daryle Ward was ridiculous coming off the bench.  He had a .963 OPS in 133 at bats over 79 games, and Cliff Floyd, when healthy was really good in right.  Cliff hit .284 with a .373 on base average, but in only 108 games.  That meant a lot of Matt Murton (99 OPS+) and Mike Fontenot (86 OPS+) with Mark DeRosa in right.

The Cubs, fittingly, clinched the division when the Brewers lost a game (to Greggie and the Padres), but celebrated like they’d won it on the field.

The 2007 Cubs begat the much more talented 2008 Cubs, though, as we know, they met the same fate, 3-0 sweeps to NL West teams.

So what does this trip down memory lane prove?  Not much, except that it’s certainly not unprecedented that a Cubs team can make a huge jump from one year to the next, and sometimes they do it a year or two or three in advance of the best version of themselves.

I’m not saying that a full year of Jorge Soler, plus mostly a full year of Kris Bryant and the addition of Jon Lester means this is a playoff team.  But it’s nice to know it wouldn’t be the first time the Cubs turned conventional wisdom on its ear (for the good).





Here are those annoying footnotes.

  1. Sweet Jesus, not only do I know these trades happened in 1998, I originally had a paragraph that showed what an asshole Ed Lynch was for pussying out and not trading for either Mike Piazza on Memorial Day or Randy Johnson at the trade deadline.  Apparently I could blame this on my editor, if I…you know…had one.