I hate the Jon Lester signing.
Not because I think Lester will be a bust or that his rotator cuff will fall off sometime before the All Star break (although either is entirely possible). And not because I'm a White Sox fan who only feels good when the Cubs lose.
No, this hatred is deeper and more existential. Jon Lester choosing to take his talents to the Northside signals the end of a golden era of Cub fandom, a three-year respite when there were no in-season expectations and only promises of glory days to come. That party is now over.
Before landing the top free agent pitcher in baseball, the Cubs successfully courted the game's most coveted available manager in Joe Maddon. This, along with a few other veteran pieces and a fertile farm system that is starting to produce promising Major League players means that the Cubs are once again a competitive franchise with realistic hopes of making the playoffs.
Things don't typically end well from here.
Up to this point, Cubs' president Theo Epstein's plan has been nothing short of brilliant. Trade away anything of value at the Major League level for minor league prospects that harvest more hope than humiliation. While the Cubs went from bad to historically bad in the process, the 2.65 million fans who paid to see them play at Wrigley Field last year had more than Old Style and Goose Island beer in which to drown their sorrows.
For every called third strike, missed cutoff throw or mercurial managerial move at Clark and Addison, there were countless YouTube clips to watch of 2014 Minor League Player of the Year Kris Bryant hitting tape measure home runs in Daytona, Tennessee and Iowa. While it was fun watching Jeff Samardzija grow into an elite pitcher, trading him away for slick-fielding shortstop prospect Addison Russell before the trade deadline last year may go down as the high point of the Epstein era. Incidentally, Samardzija can now take his string of shutout innings and no-decisions to the South Side, where they appreciate a healthy combination of mullets and misery.
Any such hopes of further gutting of the Cubs major league roster for the foreseeable future are now all but dashed. With Lester at the top of the rotation and Bryant likely to become a big leaguer in May or June, the Cubs realistically can have a winning record at midseason and actually become buyers before the July 31 trade deadline. Prospects who I have never actually seen play but have grown to love like Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber and C.J. Edwards may be bartered away for some flame-throwing middle reliever or top of the order batter with a high on-base percentage.
With the right moves and the ball bouncing their way, a Cubs team initially projected to win between 80 and 85 games may have the inside track on a Wildcard or even a National League Central Division championship. We can only hope for an eight game losing streak in August before it becomes too late.
Cubs fans of course understand what it is like to live with pain and diabolical disappointment. From the regular season chokes of '69 and '04, to the Durham error, to Bartman, to the Divisional Series o-fers in '07 and '08, we understand what it means, as I swear I once heard Billy Corgan say on the radio, to have a sliver of hope in which we will eventually hang ourselves.
Yet any Cub team to contend over the last generation -- including the '89 and '98 squads -- either came out of nowhere or were the result of a free agent spending binge. Never in recent memory has a Cubs team been assembled with such patience, attention to detail and foresight. The team now has the money, management and talent pool to contend for several years to come.
It's not impossible that in 2015 the Cubs could reach the World Series for the first time in 70 years. In many ways, the franchise is constructed like the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s, a National Football League team that made it to the Super Bowl for four consecutive years without ever winning a championship.
If that were to happen, invariably Epstein & Co. would eventually be led out of town for failing to reach the promised land. The Cubs four or five years from now, with a roster of over-the-hill free agents and mediocre young talent acquired from low draft picks, would slide back into the bottom of the standings.
At that point, we will finally be able to dream again of a friendlier future at the Friendly Confines, unencumbered by any realistic chance of playing in games that matter.