If the 2012 A's and the 2012 Orioles can do what they've done, why not the 2013 Cubs?
I'm not saying the Cubs are necessarily going to improve by 20 games the way Oakland did — and even if they do, given that they wrapped up a 71-91 season this afternoon, they're probably still not a playoff team. But these A's (and to a slightly lesser extent, these Orioles) are proof that even teams which are fully committed to rebuilding can sometimes surprise even themselves with the speed of their progression.
On the surface, the short term looks bleak for the Cubs. They'll be second worst only to the awful Astros in the final MLB standings. Entering today, they were 27th in baseball in runs scored and 24th in ERA. Their .301 OBP is the second-lowest in the game; their 4.46 FIP is fourth-highest. Measure it however you want; they're really bad.
But there's already some framework for a team that could be good to very good in the not-too-distant future coming into place. Shortstop (Starlin Castro) and first base (Anthony Rizzo) are filled. Darwin Barney's almost sold me; if he could just hit more like 2011 (.276/.313/.353) than 2012 (.254/.299/.354) and keep up his outstanding defense, I'd call him a legit MLB starter. At worst, he's a servicable player. And it now seems like two more years of Alfonso Soriano isn't the worst thing in the world.
That's four of eight positions at which the Cubs should be in good to very good shape in 2013. David DeJesus isn't exactly an ideal right fielder, but as placeholders until Jorge Soler and Albert Almora are ready you could do a lot worse. Brett Jackson and Wellington Castillo might be all right at center fielder and catcher, respectively ... or they might not. That's seven. The eighth, third base, is a black hole, unless Josh Vitters can turn it around after an atrocious .113/.171/.196. But that's the only spot in the lineup that has to be filled, and I expect some kind of low-key newcomer to be manning the spot in 2013.
I don't mean to sound as if I think the Cubs can return their current 40-man roster and suddenly compete in 2013. They'll need a pitcher or seven; their rotation is a bunch of question marks behind Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija (and perhaps Travis Wood), and the bullpen isn't in much better shape. With every bad contract except Soriano's off the books, though, they'll have money to spend on their most gaping holes. Improvement seems an inevitability in 2013, and while an A's-like or Orioles-like leap is very unlikely, it's not impossible for the Cubs.