By Paul Sullivan
The Cubs celebrated the end of their season like a victory in a World Series game Wednesday, mobbing Bryan LaHair after his walk-off, RBI single in the ninth inning of a 5-4 win over the Astros.
It was just another bizarre moment in a season full of hiccups, brain farts and losing streaks, seemingly whitewashing the previous 161 games in a blip to head off into the offseason on a high note.
After a 10-month dismantling of former general manager Jim Hendry’s handiwork, the new regime now has its fingerprints all over the Cubs organization.
The million-dollar question is whether Cubs fans will be as patient with a sub-.400 winning percentage in 2013 as they were this year.
“I’m sure they will gradually get a little less patient,” manager Dale Sveum said. “But people still have to understand things are not going to happen overnight.”
President Theo Epstein had no such “home runs” in his debut season on the North Side, though Paul Maholm and David DeJesus were free agent bargains, Dave Sappelt looks like a solid fourth outfielder and Shawn Camp was a workhorse in the bullpen. Still, the mental gaffes were hard to stomach.
Perhaps Epstein’s best move was the hiring of Sveum, who had his team playing hard from start to finish, despite obvious talent deficiencies on the roster.
Will Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer give Sveum some relief next year?
“We have to fill some holes in areas, in starting pitching, the bullpen, third base, power bats,” Sveum said. “These are your Christmas lists. It’s not easy to get what you want under the Christmas tree, either.”
Instead of a coveted Red Ryder BB gun, Sveum may wind up with some second-hand toys under his tree – players who are non-tendered or on the scrap heap after painfully bad seasons, like Ian Stewart or Chris Volstad last winter.
There were bright spots, including rebound years from Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol, Starlin Castro’s continued emergence at short, Anthony Rizzo’s power, Jeff Samardzija’s stamina and Darwin Barney’s glove.
“You learn a lot about yourself in a year like this,” second baseman Barney said. “I’m happy with the way I kind of established myself defensively and improved there. Offensively, there were some strides.”
The departures of veterans such as Ryan Dempster, Kerry Wood, Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker during the season led to a leadership vacuum, though slowly but surely, the kids began to step up and assert themselves – Barney, Rizzo and James Russell.
Rizzo finished with 15 homers and 48 RBIs in 87 games while living up to the kind of hype that swallowed up Corey Patterson, Felix Pie and other top prospects.
“There are a lot of steps to go,” Rizzo said. “Hopefully this is the beginning and hopefully this is the last losing season we have. Like I said, everyone in this clubhouse should be hungry for next year.”
It may seem like a long way till Opening Day, but for most Cubs fans, next year is always just a dream away.