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In Memoriam: The Chicago Cubs

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If there’s any lesson to be drawn from an absolutely wild National League Wild Card series between the Chicago Cubs and the Miami Marlins, it’s apparently that you can’t stand in the way of fate. The Marlins extended their ridiculous streak of postseason series victories to seven with a two-game sweep at Wrigley Field. Chicago’s anemic offense only mustered one run across eighteen innings against the very best that Miami’s surprising pitching staff had to offer.

The Future

There’s not much reason to think that the Cubbies are going to stop being contenders in the near future, but their window is definitely closing. Thanks to their infamous service-time shenanigans with Kris Bryant back in 2015, the Cubs get to retain the rights to one of their cornerstones for another year. Bryant’s awful production (76 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR) won’t help the Cubs at all should they decide to shop him, but– why are we even discussing this? The only possible reason for the Cubs to deal the former MVP is pure, naked greed. If the Ricketts family deals Bryant, they might as well tear the entire team down and start from scratch.

Past Bryant, the rest of Chicago’s roster looks patchy and incomplete. Jason Heyward came through with his best offensive production since his days as a Cardinal, and former bit part Ian Happ broke out in a big way in 2020 (to read more about Happ’s weirdly incredible 2020 campaign, check out this FanGraphs piece from a little while back). Anthony Rizzo slumped hard, but it’ll probably be important to take stats from 2020 with a grain of salt going forward. Buy-low guys like Steven Souza, Jr., and Cameron Maybin fell apart. Depth was an issue all season; Nico Hoerner and his .571 OPS racked up 126 plate appearances in 40 games. Jason Kipnis turning in a league-average season with the bat might have been the only pleasant surprise for the Cubs’ offense in 2020.

Pitching-wise, things are… interesting. Yu Darvish cemented himself as the ace Chicago backed up the Brinks truck for with a thunderous 2.6 rWAR campaign over 76 innings of 2.01 ERA ball, primarily thanks to his ridiculous 11-pitch arsenal.

Kyle Hendricks junkballed his way to a typical Kyle Hendricks season- his league-leading 0.9 BB/9 IP walk rate offset his low strikeout rate, and his hard-hit rates stayed excellent. Pretty much any team in MLB would kill to have these two at the top of their rotation.

Image courtesy of Nuccio DiNuzzo and Getty Images.

After that spectacular one-two, things get rough. Jon Lester had a pretty bad year all around, and he’ll become a free agent unless the Cubs pick up his $25MM option (spoiler: they won’t). Alec Mills‘s no-no was an incredible moment, but banking on him to recreate even the league-average performance he put up this year- especially with his peripheral numbers- will be a serious long shot.

Those four starters- two aces, a free agent, and a guy with some seriously wobbly peripherals– started 47 of Chicago’s 60 games. Adbert Alzolay could be a long-term solution, but he isn’t exactly a proven commodity just yet (33 2/3 career MLB innings). Tyler Chatwood‘s strikeout numbers skyrocketed in his 18 2/3 innings, but he stills walks way too many batters. A 1.67 WHIP won’t get anyone far in the bigs. Jose Quintana, the main prize in the Eloy Jimenez trade, is a free agent.

Chicago’s relief corps is also pretty sketchy. Craig Kimbrel is much better than he was around the time this article was written, but he still isn’t close to replicating the numbers he put up from 2010-2018, when he was arguably on a Hall of Fame track. Rowan Wick continued to quietly put up very good numbers in a setup/occasional closer role, and Jeremy Jeffress exploded back onto the scene following his ignominious release from Milwaukee (although his 4.09 FIP tells a much nastier story than his sparkling 1.54 ERA). Beyond that trio… well, it’s not looking great. Colin farking Rea (remember him?) got his first MLB actoin since 2016. Rex Brothers made his first appearances since 2018. Reading through the Cubs’ list of relievers generates encouraging thoughts such as “He’s still in the league?” and “I thought he was pitching in Korea!” and “Didn’t he retire?” It just doesn’t look great.

2021 Outlook

2021 projections don’t go public for a while, but 2020 feels like a major fork in the road for the Cubs. Despite the successes that this organization has had since the glory days of five years ago, the Cubs always seem to fall well short of expectations. After 2016, Chicago seemed to be cooking up a dynasty the likes of which MLB hasn’t seen since the days of Posada and Pettitte. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez were franchise cornerstones and their rotation (remember Jake Arrieta and John Lackey?) was untouchable. Their bullpen was headed up by rocks like Aroldis Chapman and Pedro Strop. The Cubs were going to rule MLB for a very, very long time.

And then they didn’t. After the heady days of that 2016 World Series title, the Cubs have frustrated and underachieved at every turn. They got mulched in 2017 by a Dodger squad that had a shot to be the best team in MLB history, minus one historic losing streak. In 2018, they ceded the NL Central title to a surprising Milwaukee Brewers team, then got slapped out of contention by Tony Wolters and the Colorado Rockies.

They didn’t even make the playoffs in 2019, despite their $214,246,988 payroll. And now they’ve been swept out of the playoffs by an insolent bottom feeder that no sane person would have ever predicted to even finish above .500.

The Ricketts family has decisions to make. They could spend money on their team and try to ensure they make one last real run before their stars depart in free agency, or they could trim their payroll and let a talented yet underachieving squad slide into mediocrity. It’s a dark day in Chicagoland, and the way things are going for the Cubbies, there’ll be plenty more to come.

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