The national media crowned the Cubs and White Sox as the kings of the winter meetings, teasing fans with the idea Chicago could become the epicenter for October baseball.
One team woke up on Sunday with a 91.8 percent chance to make the playoffs, while Baseball Prospectus projected the other at 1.9 percent.
The Cubs saw their nine-game winning streak end against Chris Sale’s freak-of-nature stuff in a 3-1 loss that didn’t even feel that close at U.S. Cellular Field.
It was 94 degrees at first pitch, and the Cubs finally cooled down after winning 15 of their previous 16 games, moving ahead of the San Francisco Giants and pulling to within 2 1/2 games of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the first wild-card spot.
“The whole winning-the-offseason (thing) is completely overrated,” catcher David Ross said. “There (are) all these teams that always have all this hype going into the season and it doesn’t work out.
“I don’t think you’ll ever be able to put together an All-Star team and then just run away with anything. It takes a group of guys to know their role and know what they’re good at, what they bring to the table and be able to do that unselfishly.”
So many teams that made a splash during the offseason appear to be sinking this summer. The White Sox are now five games under .500 and began the day just as close to holding a wild-card spot as having the worst record in the American League.
The Boston Red Sox are looking at their third last-place finish within the last four seasons (wrapped around a World Series title in 2013). The Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres fired their managers and combined are almost 30 games under .500.
“When you have a massive overhaul, it’s tough to win because of the chemistry,” outfielder Chris Coghlan said. “You have a lot of newness. People don’t understand: You got to pick up and move your family. You got a different city. Your routine is all jacked. We’re built on routine. So now all of a sudden, it changes.”
Coghlan remembered being part of the 2012 Marlins, a reality-show team that hired Ozzie Guillen, signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, traded for Carlos Zambrano, moved into a taxpayer-funded stadium ... and lost 93 games.
“I saw it in Miami,” Coghlan said. “I was like: ‘Man, we’re either going to win the pennant or we’re just going to be terrible.’
“You just had too many (moving pieces). A lot of people don’t pay attention to the chemistry. When you got to go a whole season, you got to blend together and you got to learn to be a family.
“It’s one thing to have one, three, five (new) guys. But when you got like seven to nine different players — or you have five significant everyday players — it’s very difficult.”
The Cubs haven’t bombed because Theo Epstein’s front office lucked into their dream manager and didn’t hesitate once Joe Maddon became a free agent, locking up another piece to a well-thought-out plan.
The Epstein administration convinced Jon Lester to become a $155 million anchor for the rotation after building the pipeline that’s produced Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. By Year 4, those big-picture deals around the trade deadline have yielded major contributors like Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Addison Russell, Kyle Hendricks and Justin Grimm.
Smaller moves like signing reliever Jason Motte and outfielder Chris Denorfia to one-year deals have paid off, and it’s impossible to miss the loose-but-professional vibe in the clubhouse.
“Teams have to jell,” Ross said. “It has to do with personalities, too. It’s not just talent. You got to bring in people that are good teammates and care about one another. It’s hard to come into a new place and fit in. It takes a little while. Some players do that a little easier than others.”
The Cubs have stayed relatively healthy, with Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks and Jason Hammel each making 20-plus starts. Anthony Rizzo has now been hit 24 times, but fortunately those pitches haven’t knocked out the All-Star first baseman.
Even Miguel Montero’s sprained thumb just before the All-Star break allowed Schwarber to spark the team and possibly jump into the National League’s Rookie of the Year conversation.
“It’s hard to win big-league games consistently,” Lester said. “We’ve tried to minimize the lows and ride the highs as long as we can. (And) these guys do a great job of turning the page (while) being so young, whether they were 0-for-4 or have a Kyle Schwarber day.”
The Cubs have embraced Maddon’s quirks and accepted the manager’s unconventional methods. The relievers have checked their egos at the bullpen door, with seven different guys notching saves. Starlin Castro hasn’t pouted since being moved off shortstop.
There is also a certain amount of luck and mental toughness involved, with the Cubs going 27-17 in one-run games and winning 11 in extra innings.
“It’s about coming together as a team,” said Ross, who has lasted 14 years in the big leagues, playing in seven postseason series and winning a World Series ring with Lester and the 2013 Red Sox.
“It always depends on the guys in the clubhouse. The winning teams I’ve been on, it’s about bringing your best on a daily basis and playing your team brand of baseball — whatever that is — and not individualized baseball or selfish baseball. It’s about team. It always will be.”