The Cubs were supposed to be one of the marquee attractions on the Twins schedule this year, but Chicago's lovable losers have been overdoing it a bit.
At 19-38, the Cubs are on pace to finish 54-108, which would go down as the worst mark in the franchise's long history. It's been the Curse of the Billy Goat on steroids.
Not that the Twins season has been a picnic. Even after winning three consecutive series, they still have the worst record in the American League at 22-34. So two of baseball's most woeful teams will be squaring off at Target Field for the next three days, as the Cubs make their first visit to Minnesota since 2006.
The Cubs are definitely a team in transition under new President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer, and this is a critical phase of their rebuilding project.
It started with this week's draft, as the Cubs mirrored the Twins' approach, passing on Stanford ace Mark Appel to take high school outfielder Albert Almora with the No. 6 overall pick before stockpiling pitchers in subsequent rounds.
Now, the Cubs are making a strong push to sign Cuban prospect Jorge Soler, a power-hitting right fielder who expects to find a team within the next month. The Cubs tried to sign Soler's countryman Yeonis Cespedes before he landed in Oakland last winter, so this time they are considered the frontrunners.
It's all about the future in Wrigleyville, so the Cubs are a team to watch leading up to the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. Ever since they lured Epstein away from his hometown Boston Red Sox last fall, fans have wondered when the tear-down phase of this project would begin.
It could happen soon. Pending free agent Ryan Dempster is the most likely to go. Scheduled to pitch Sunday's finale against the Twins, the veteran righthander is 1-3 in 10 starts -- despite a 2.59 ERA.
The Cubs can't unload left fielder Alfonso Soriano because he still has 2 1/2 years remaining on his eight-year, $136 million contract, but another pitcher who figures to draw interest is Matt Garza, the former Twins righthander who lowered his ERA to 3.99 on Thursday in Milwaukee. The Cubs are less eager to trade Garza because he can't become a free agent until after the 2013 season, but they would certainly listen.
With the postseason expanding to 10 teams this fall, there are fewer clear-cut sellers right now. Entering Thursday, the only National League teams who were more than five games behind in the wild-card race were the Cubs, Astros, Padres, Rockies and Brewers. Over in the AL, it was just the Twins, Royals, Athletics and Mariners.
That means 21 other teams still had legitimate hope, or at least enough that their fans would be furious if they began trading away key players.
"It's such a jumbled race right now," Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer told reporters this week. "That'll shake out a little bit over the next six to eight weeks, and as it does, teams will be more active. We'll be on the phones."
There's even been rumors that Chicago would listen to offers for 22-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro, the team's best young player. Castro, who is batting .303, had a key defensive lapse Monday in San Francisco, forgetting how many outs there were on a potential double-play ball. First-year manager Dale Sveum called it "the last straw" and threatened to bench his young All-Star if he didn't pay better attention.
Castro handled the criticism well, saying mistakes like that "can't happen."
"He's a huge part of our plans," Hoyer told reporters. "He's a shortstop who can hit, can run, and he's getting better defensively -- those are hard to find. You look around baseball, and almost every time we play another team, we have the better shortstop on the field."
Besides Castro, another player the Cubs hope to build around is first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who entered Thursday batting .363 with 17 homers, 47 RBI and a 1.140 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) for Class AAA Iowa.
Fans are clamoring for Rizzo, but in Bryan LaHair, the Cubs already have a first baseman batting .311 with a .988 OPS. On Thursday, LaHair came off the bench and hit a two-run, lead-changing homer in the eighth inning, but the Brewers went on to win 4-3 in 10 innings.
At 29, LaHair is a late bloomer, but this is giving Rizzo more time to hone his swing. Hoyer is quick to remind people that Rizzo was tearing up the Pacific Coast League last year before batting .141 in a 49-game promotion with the Padres.
Besides, it's clear the Cubs are a lot further from a championship than the Red Sox were when Epstein took over as their GM in 2002, at age 28. The next year, Boston came one victory short of the World Series, before the Red Sox won it all in 2004 and 2007.
After breaking an 86-year championship drought for the Red Sox, will Epstein be able to bring the Cubs their first World Series title since 1908? With all this losing right now, it's hard to imagine.
"Sometimes, when you rip the scab off, there's some pain until we grow some new skin," Epstein told reporters last month. "We're going places. This is a tough road."
Joe Christensen • firstname.lastname@example.org