Cubs' April slide exposes inconvenient truth of rebuild


MILWAUKEE — April is finally over for the Cubs.

Which makes it May Day.

Especially if you’re Seiya Suzuki, Justin Steele or any number of other Cubs outfielders and pitchers who stumbled through the final two weeks of the month to finish April 8-13 after a promising 10-game start to the season.

Suzuki will probably be fine as he continues to adjust to a new league and country. Steele might be, too, despite recent struggles — with Saturday’s trouble in Milwaukee aided and abetted by a pair of teammates’ errors and a Brew Crew review that went against the visitors, all in the first inning.

It cost him enough pitches that he needed 74 to get through three innings as the Cubs closed the month with their ninth loss in 11 games, this one 9-1 to the Brewers, assuring a fourth straight series loss.

They've been outscored 20-2 in their two games in Milwaukee, 25-3 in their last three games, and scored exactly one run each in four of their last five.

Whether it’s too early to start making broad evaluations and grand proclamations about the nature of this Cubs team this year, manager David Ross said he tends to step back from the daily grind to take a bigger-picture look at the end of each month for trends. He has at least a few to gnaw on right now.

“Coming into a season with a short spring training, maybe it’s a little different,” he said. “We try to win every game, but you can assess where you’re at and the kind of month you had and try to improve and see some trend lines over that month. That’s how I look at it.”

With April in the books we can help with at least two clear assessments of this team:

One, without a sudden boost of starting pitching (eventually Wade Miley, Alec Mills?) and hitting production (better pop when the better weather pops?) the for-sale signs will go out sooner then usual for Willson Contreras and a handful of short-term veterans ahead of the trade deadline.

And, two, we can quit trying to pretend this season isn’t part of a second rebuild in less than 10 years.

Cubs brass didn’t give the verbal finger to the fans that Reds president Phil Castellini did in Cincinnati when he publicly addressed criticism of their roster purge by suggesting the poor, little-market, poverty-stricken Reds could simply move to greener pastures if fans don’t like it. “Be careful what you ask for,” he said, before apologizing after the predictable backlash.

Instead, Cubs president Jed Hoyer tried to tell us that the goal was to be competitive in the short-run while keeping an eye on the long-term competitive picture — that when they dumped nine guys in July last year, including three huge All-Star core players, they weren’t embarking on a rebuild.

It was just semantics from the start. Word salads. Spin.

Choose your own semantics for the Cubs' April: 

Disappointing? Promising at times? Crap?

Call it whatever you want.

Then consider the Cubs’ market peers in New York and Los Angeles — teams that didn’t use pandemic losses the last two years as excuses to strip down their teams.

The two New York teams entered Saturday with the best records in the American and National leagues, respectively.

The Dodgers had the second-best record in the NL, and Joe Maddon’s Angels — not as often associated with the biggest-market clubs — made upgrades in the off-season and had the second-best mark in the AL.

There’s a long way to go this season, and any of those teams could yet face-plant.

But none of them took a 2020 playoff roster and gutted it, either.

And the only thing more impossible to imagine than the the Dodgers or the Yankees, for example, doing that in the first place would be if they pretended they still expected to compete for a playoff spot if they did it.

These Cubs looked scrappy and fun with all the Seiya Mania, the opening-series win over the Brewers, the 6-4 start, the lone error in the first 11 games and overall brilliance from that 10- and 11-man bullpen.

But the flaws and the reality of the depth issues — and Suzuki’s inevitable adjustment period — caught up with a team that expected to have Miley (elbow) in its rotation by now instead of possibly June, and Alec Mills (back, quad) as a starter-long relief linchpin.

Even during the 6-4 start, the rotation had a collective ERA of 4.84 -- only to produce a 6.26 ERA the rest of the month.

Maybe they’ll be back in time to make the results look a little better at some point.

But this was never a team with a margin to work with this year as it kept “one eye on the future.”

Wherever you fall on the acceptance scale of a second rebuild in a decade for one of the top-revenue teams in the game, let’s at least call it what it is.

And then take what enjoyment there might be to gain from the next five months.

For one thing, enjoy All-Star catcher Willson Contreras while he lasts on this roster, his multi-hit game Saturday and the emotional moment he shared on the field Thursday in Atlanta with his brother William giving just a glimpse of what will be missed when he's gone.

And Suzuki certainly remains a storyline as he tries to get back on a Rookie of the Year trajectory and fight out of a 7-for-40 stretch that has included 14 strikeouts, produced a .517 OPS and coincided with the team’s 2-9 skid.

Maybe they have a surge in them the second half of May when they play the Diamondbacks, Reds and, um, Pirates a bunch of times?

The development of lights-out multi-inning reliever Keegan Thompson, the struggling Steele and a handful of other young pitchers bears watching for that “eye on the future.”

And by the time the weather warms, and summer days at the ballpark beckon, it shouldn’t be hard to find a ticket.

Probably as cheap as a North Side baseball owner.

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