After months of speculation, the curtain finally fell on one of the greatest eras in the storied history of the Chicago Cubs this week.
If social media is anything to go by, some fans still weren’t quite ready to let Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and even Kyle Schwarber go the way of Javier Báez, who became a Detroit Tiger back in November and clung to the unlikely possibility of a reunion until the very last.
It wasn’t to be though and all three went their separate ways via free agency in quick succession, leaving a hole where the core of the 2016 World Series-winning team used to be.
While it’s still hard to fathom just how the organisation managed to let one of the most important players ever to grace its clubhouse in Rizzo, a former National League MVP in Bryant and one of the sport’s most exciting infielders in Báez, slip through their fingers, their decision to non-tender Schwarber back in December 2020 perhaps tells us everything we need to know.
Schwarber was, if Tom Verducci’s 2017 book The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse is anything to go by, perhaps Theo Epstein’s favourite Cub, not to mention the one who led the charge offensively during the remarkable 2015 postseason run, before battling back from a severe left knee injury to hit .412 in the 2016 World Series.
But ahead of the 2021 season, the Cubs were more focused on ‘payroll realities’, as beat writer Jordan Bastian put it, than handing out extensions. And with Schwarber’s production in serious decline, the front office followed head over heart, pulling the plug so they could use the money saved to cobble together enough additional talent for one more postseason run.
In reality, though the Cubs hadn’t made the postseason proper since 2017, their pitching staff was in tatters, and their farm system, which had once been the envy of Major League Baseball, offered little in the way of salvation.
What’s more, when they had been given an opportunity for reprieve in the form of a best-of-three Wildcard Series against the Miami Marlins at the end of the lockdown-shortened 2020 season, they blew it, scoring just one run on nine total hits in two games at Wrigley Field.
The core just wasn’t clicking, but then it hadn’t been since 2018, a season that ended similarly when the Cubs lost 2-1 to the Colorado Rockies in the NL Wildcard, again at Wrigley, suggesting that the team was stuck in a loop of ever-diminishing returns.
While the players undoubtedly contributed to this, their decline was symptomatic of the ‘Cubs Way’ Verducci’s book explored, as although it helped Epstein and Hoyer construct a champion, it was by no means a model focused on developing and supplementing the core group so vital to its success.
It, after all, placed an emphasis on position players, rather than pitching. And while a now-legendary rotation constructed around Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks made postseason baseball fashionable again on the North Side in ’15 ’16 and ’17, the front office’s plan to maintain that success relied on trade and free agent acquisitions in the form of Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood, Cole Hamels and the moderately more successful yet considerably more expensive Yu Darvish.
Whether because of scepticism (let’s not forget that the Cubs gave Brandon Morrow a disastrous two-year, $21 million deal) or tight-fistedness, ownership decided, shortly thereafter, to board up the well, leaving the front office to pin its hopes on Daniel Descalso, rather than Bryce Harper in the 2018 offseason.
With one faction backing the core and the other refusing to, things were only ever going to end one way. And while the Cubs did spend big on Craig Kimbrel part way through the 2019 season, by then, they needed more than just a closer who was low on reps after missing the opening months of the campaign.
As Bleacher Nation pointed out this week, the ‘post-2021 cliff was looming for YEARS’ and the Cubs did nothing to prepare for it.
According to Hoyer, they “made offers to everyone that I believe will stand up exceptionally well,” and yet, in reality, the core had been underachieving for years by then, while the rest of the roster decayed around them.
Looking back, they should have shaken things up after that Wildcard defeat to the Rockies in 2018. That year, offensive production was poor down the stretch, scoring just one run in three of the final four games, including Game 163 for the NL Central Division title and then again in the Wildcard game. Prior to that, the team ranked first in OPS in the first half, posting a .771 mark that was similar to 2017’s production, but that plummeted to just .705 after the All-Star break – 10th in the National League.
Hitting coach Chili Davis was fired shortly after, but little else changed and the Cubs rolled it back again for 2019, when they won just 84 games, missing out on the postseason entirely and costing Joe Madden his job.
Whether the Cubs would have tried to move some pieces around ahead of the 2020 season were it not for the pandemic we’ll never know. They were reportedly close to a deal with Báez at the time, while they also ‘low-balled’ Rizzo and butted against Bryant’s service time grievance, if the official narrative is to be believed. What is clear though is that Epstein’s attachment to his core coupled with ownership’s growing reluctance to put additional talent around them made last season’s teardown all but an inevitability.
That doesn’t make it any easier to swallow though. Rizzo, Bryant, Báez and Schwarber all played crucial roles in the transformation of the Cubs and, regardless of the struggles of the past few years, will always be legends at Wrigley. But now, as they appear on social media in other teams’ jerseys, it’s time for us fans to move on, just as they all have.
Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Sean is one of the Bat Flips & Nerds’ Chicago Cubs correspondents for the 2022 season. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest