By Frederick Krauss, Ph.D.
So here we are. Less than one week away from Opening Day and there is Cubs fever everywhere throughout the Northside and on a national level. Sports Illustrated just announced their 2016 predictions and they had the Cubs winning the National League pennant before losing to the Houston Astros in the World Series. Maybe even more significantly, the oddsmakers at Bovada have listed the Cubs as the favorite to win the World Series at +500.
The idea of Cubs being a frontrunner can be seen as a blessing and a curse. Because what these proclamations represent is that this new batch of Cubs have finally arrived onto the national scene and with that comes great expectations. The blessing is that these preseason accolades show that so far everything has gone to plan. The curse is that the bar is set as high as it can go with a World Series win and anything less can be viewed as a disappointment.
Since the last out of the 2015 World Series the Cubs have been ordained as front runners, which is not necessarily the best position to be in as a Major League Baseball team. Unlike the NFL, NBA, NHL, where the same teams tend to make the postseason and advance through the playoffs on a regular basis every year, nothing is given in Major League Baseball. Teams have to grind it out for 162 games, which make it very difficult to repeat the previous season’s success.
This is why I urge my new-found friends in Cubs nation to approach the beginning of the season with caution, because being the front runner and preseason World Series favorite does not usually turn out for the best. If you don’t believe me one only has to look back at last year and see what became of the Washington Nationals after being anointed 2015 preseason favorites.
I find that the strong preseason accolades that the 2016 Cubs are receiving are eerily similar to those of the 2008 Detroit Tigers. That team should serve as a cautionary tale for the Cubs and fan base about the difference between being anointed preseason World Series favorites and actually playing the games.
In the winter of 2008 the media and just about every baseball expert handed that season’s World Series trophy to the Detroit Tigers. During that off-season the Tigers President Dave Dombrowski assembled a lineup that on paper was deemed the modern day Murderer’s Row. Dombrowski pulled off an unexpected trade in December 2007 for Miguel Cabrera shipping out two rookies and four prospects for Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. With the addition of Cabrera and the earlier accusation of Jacque Jones from the Cubs for Omar Infante, the Tigers lineup looked as intimidating of a batting order that had been assembled in decades. Here was the order and a brief explanation of why this lineup was deemed so formidable:
The lineup contained players who each brought with them their own accolades. Granderson was on the rise to being the player he is today of mixing speed and power with exceptional defense. He finished tenth in MVP voting in 2007 and was on his way to becoming a multi-time All-Star. Polanco was a former ALCS MVP and who just came off an All-Star season where he batted .341. The reason Polanco did not win the batting title in 2007 was Ordonez who hit an absurd .363 and was 2nd in MVP voting in 2007.
The Tigers acquired Cabrera with the hopes that he would continue the success he had in Florida, but they never could expect someone to go on and win the Triple Crown, two MVPs and four batting titles. By the time the Tigers acquired him at the age of 25 he was already a four-time All-Star and won a World Series at the age of 20. Gary Sheffield was on his way to a Hall of Fame career (although steroid accusations may have prevented his inception) by eventually hitting 509 home runs. Carlos Guillen was coming off of an All-Star selection in 2007.
Edgar Renteria was a five time All-Star when he was acquired and was coming off of a year when he batted .332 for the Atlanta Braves. Ivan Rodriguez will soon be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when at the time of 2008 he was already a 14-time All-Star, 1999 AL MVP, and arguably the greatest defensive catcher in MLB history. Finally, Jacque Jones was an exceptional outfielder who hit over 20 home runs four times and batted over .300 twice.
The lineup looked great on paper, just like the Cubs lineup does this year, but World Series aren’t won in the off-season. Jason Beck, the Tigers beat writer, best summed up the season:
“With an offense that had stud players at just about every position, many of them veterans, and a rotation that ranked among the best in baseball in 2006, the (2008 Detroit) Tigers came into Spring Training among the American League titans. Fans talked openly in January about World Series tickets. Opponents talked about Detroit as if it had a title to defend, not as a team trying to make a play upward. A funny thing happened on the way into the season — just not ha-ha funny for Detroit.” – Sportswriter Jason Beck on MLB.com (09/30/2008)
What happened that year was that the team got off to a 0-7 start and never recovered. What happened is that they had a roster of star-laden talent and when one guy was struggling he expected the others to pick him up. Unfortunately, they all struggled throughout the season. What happened was that there was no sense of urgency because the players looked around the locker room and had the sense that they were better than all the teams they played. However, that only bred complacency until it was too late to catch all the teams ahead of them. What happened was that they had injuries throughout the season starting out with Curtis Granderson fracturing a forearm after being hit by a pitch in Spring Training and was out a month into the regular season.
The Tigers ended the season dead last in the Central Division. A season that began with national acclaim and fans expecting their first World Series title since 1984 ended with a thud of tremendous disappointment. It was one thing for a team not to meet expectations. However, it is another when so many experts come to a consensus that a particular team is destined for a championship and come nowhere near that potential. The regular season for the 2008 Detroit Tigers was supposed to be a formality as they marched towards the World Series, but from Opening Day on they under-performed.
There are several reasons why the 2008 Detroit Tigers should serve as a cautionary tale for the 2016 Chicago Cubs. First, the players and fans should ignore the hype. Yes, it’s great to receive such praise, but the 2008 Tigers showed that such preseason praise does nothing but make the failure of not winning a championship that much more disappointing. Second, the players should fight complacency. It is true that for almost all 162 games the Cubs should have more talent on paper than their opposition, but the games are won on the field not on the lineup card.
Third, just because a team is expected to score a ton of runs doesn’t always mean that it will be easy. The 2008 Tigers believed that they would beat teams with three-run home runs and were not built to play small-ball. There will be plenty of games where the Cubs will have to figure out how to eke out runs instead of hitting the long-ball. They will need to rely on trying to get that extra base or bunting a runner over. It is in these scenarios the Cubs will need to execute.
Lastly, the Cubs should remember what got them to this point in the first place—performing. If the players simply grind and play like nothing has been earned yet then they will be on the right track to meet those great expectations. But heeding the results from the 2008 Detroit Tigers, showing up is simply not enough for the Cubs to win the 2016 World Series.