Brett at the Nation had a good article about the Cubs' horrid luck this year, and so did frequent commenter on that site Dr. Wimsey. I agree with the main thrust of both arguments. However, I'm here to tell you it's the BEST thing that could have happened this year.
The Cubs are, by rights, a .500 team by any definition but record at least. They have a run differential of +1, and a Pythagorean record of 26-25 (however, that's overstated: it's more like 25.6-25.4). If the Cubs were actually 26-25, we'd be in the thick of the playoff hunt, right?
No. We'd be 6 back in the Wild Card race and 9 back in the division. Surely, these gaps are not insurmountable, but they do exist and would have to be dealt with. I don't believe in the Pirates, but I do believe in the Cardinals and Reds (and the Braves and Nationals). If the Cubs hit their Pythag, or overachieved, we wouldn't be clear sellers at the deadline, and we might even be buyers!
I'm well aware of the variance that contributes to exciting, unpredictable playoffs. For that to happen, you've got to get there, and I don't think even the most optimistic Cubs fan thinks that a -5 Luck swing is the reason we aren't going to compete this year. The Cubs are an average team with a bad record when there are no benefits to being average and plenty of benefits to being bad. We should be happy!
All of this, of course, neglects to mention whether or not the Cubs themselves are in for a regression (either positive or negative). I'd posit that the Cubs staff is not the 1996 Braves, and that Feldman is not 40% better than the league average. Kevin Gregg will probably cough up a run or eight in the near future, as well as Travis Wood (who is going to get lit up today; the field is howling out to left). Scott Hairston will improve, as will Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney. Luis Valbuena is probably not a 113 OPS+ guy.
If the 2013 Cubs end up with 81 wins of talent and 72 actual wins, I'll consider the season a rousing success. If we don't win the World Series, I don't care how many wins we have. I care about what talent we have for the next year and the year after. Winning games #1-86 on the year only hurt our draft pool and waiver position. This year has given me some confidence that the Cubs could actually compete on the fringes in 2014, to the point where I'm no longer entirely sure I trade David DeJesus now (I mean, I probably do, but if you expect to compete in 2014 he's a CF you can live with). Unfortunately, a lot of the reasons we've hit a +1 run differential are all trade bait/free agents (Scott Feldman, Carl Newhouse, Nate Schierholtz).
It sucks watching the Cubs lose 93 times in a season, but does it suck more than watching them lose 80 times? Not really. We don't make the playoffs in either case.
This is our team next year:
LF: -hole- (Soriano is either traded or untradeable and thus a bench player in my mind)
CF: Watkins? Jackson?
OF: Hairston (1B)/ Watkins/Jackson
The outfield is a mess, but the infield is fairly cheap and fairly good. OF are generally easier to find (of course, in the new CBA, everything is hard to find). In fact, there's a chance 2 fairly useable outfielders reach free agency (Choo and Ellsbury), and neither would need to play CF as both Watkins and Jackson are capable there. (I'm not saying we should sign either of them.)
SP: Negrin? (He's being stretched out as a starter)
SP: -hole- (Garza?)
RP: 6 holes
You don't have a ton of starting pitching to go out and find, either. If you re-sign either Baker or Garza (depending on how the winds blow), you've got 4, and if Negrin sticks as a starter (I've seen him a few times on MILB.TV and he looks like the real deal) or if any of their other random arms can stick as a #5 (Raley, Rusin, Cabrera, Struck, Hendricks, Loux), you don't have that much you need to replace (except the bullpen).
It gets more and more feasible that the Cubs can compete in 2014 (things will have to break right, like a step forward from Castro and probably another prospect), but probably not in 2013 given where we stand. That's not the worst thing in the world; more time to trade pieces, better waiver wire position (the Cubs claimed Luis Valbuena off of waivers last year, if you think that doesn't matter) and draft position/pool (clearly important).
The Cubs aren't winning the WS this year, but they might be doing the next best thing.