By Shane Nicholson
It’s been only two weeks since the MLB non-waiver trade deadline passed, and the tale of Chicago’s two teams couldn’t have gone any differently.
Both the Cubs and the White Sox went into the deadline still searching for a wild card spot. The day was active at Wrigley, seeing the arrival of Dan Haren to give them a much-needed fifth starter and reliever Tommy Hunter. Good moves with little given up–the Cubs now sit with the fourth best record in baseball, though are still third in their own division.
The Sox, surefire sellers in the weeks leading up to July 31, held onto the only truly tradeable piece in the puzzle: starter Jeff Samardzija. In return they’ve slipped further away from a playoff spot as the Blue Jays–baseball’s unluckiest team in the first half–have rode the acquisitions of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and starter David Price to now the best record in the American League.
So here it sits, August 14, and the Cubs are ahead of where most projections had them last spring: on pace for 93 wins and holding a 2-game advantage for the second wild card spot over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
On top of that, they’re playing exciting baseball. Fun baseball. Very good baseball. If you’re not watching then you’re missing out. They’ve reeled off seven wins in a row, with Anthony Rizzo scaling tarps and Starlin Castro finally finding his natural home on the diamond: any place that allows Addison Russell to start at shortstop.
You hate to say it, especially in a division the Cardinals are leading by 7.5 games, but the Cubs may be the best team in the National League right now. Both John Lester and Jake Arrieta are pitching out of their minds and those slumping bats of June and July have come back to life. A resurgent Dexter Fowler has posted a .292/.444/.490 slash line over his last 26 games, reaching base 55 times. That’s good doing when you’ve got Rizzo and Kris Bryant, hitting .314 this month, to get him home.
The Sox meanwhile are five games out of the second wild card slot with five teams to hurdle. They were two games under .500 on deadline day; now they’re four. That’s a less than optimistic appraisal of whatever they thought their chances for this season were.
But look at the long view here. The Cubs lost 377 games the four years leading into this season of suddenly high expectations; the White Sox, 348. Just 29 games separated the city’s two clubs over that span, and yet the Cubs were in full-scale rebuild mode, acquiring and drafting top-prospects seemingly at will and not caring about the standings. The White Sox tried to patch together a contending roster year-after-year, and came up short year-after-year.
You have to feel for Rick Hahn, who took over as the Sox GM just a few months after Theo and Jed’s Wrigleyville coronation. He’s had to work under perpetual “We’re still in it!” cheerleader Kenny Williams this whole time. A repeat of 1997’s White Flag Trade just isn’t possible even if he wanted to pull the trigger on such a deal.
And he has done an admirable job of rebuilding a decimated and depleted Sox farm system. Long one of the worst in baseball, they’ve at least clawed their way back to league-average status.
But they remain miles behind the Cubs; frankly, most teams do. It’s just that the disparity is so magnified when the distance between the two is so small, even though the distance in the standings keeps growing.
The White Sox may finally push the button this offseason and blow the whole thing up. But if that’s the case, they’ve already wasted four years of Chris Sale, three good ones from Jose Quintana, and a couple between Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu. They’ve tread water trying to remain competitive when it’s clear that the quickest path back to the top in the current MLB climate is that of the Cubs: build from your own core, add the shiny bits later.
The Cubs have done exactly what they set out to do back in 2011: put a team together that will allow them to compete for championships over a number of years, starting right now. This season.
Sadly, for Sox fans their team has done exactly what they set themselves up to do: go nowhere and spend valuable time and resources doing it. They’re in baseball hell, they’ve been in baseball hell, and unless Hahn can perform a miracle this winter it’s not going to change for 2016.