You look back and think that it ended almost in a blink. The Cubs’ 2018 season, that is. They had the National League Central under lock and key, almost, and that turned out to be deceptive. Especially when their lineup couldn’t hit with a hangar door when it mattered the most. In two days and 22 innings of baseball, they collapsed.
With practically the same team with which they pulled World Series rabbits out of their hats two years earlier, give or take one or two different pieces, the Cubs needed to play a tiebreaker to win the NL Central—and blew it. Then, they needed to win the wild card game to stay in the postseason at all—and they blew that, too.
In two days of the most important baseball they played all year, after being unable to hold a five-game division lead, the Cubs scored only two runs and went 1-for-8 with men in scoring position. They entered the winter with a somewhat depleted farm, a bullpen with holes, and the possibility that they didn’t strike when replenishments would have made a bigger difference then or now.
Their owner still thinks they have a championship core despite other observers thinking their dynastic window is cloudy at best and closing at worst. Tom Ricketts says the Cubs didn’t have the financial flexibility this time around to play a big ticket or two this winter. And he says that’s kind of a moot point. “We like the team we have,” he told ESPN Radio last week. “We have strong young guys at most positions.”
Last weekend’s annual fan convention didn’t feature Ricketts but did feature team president Theo Epstein. That’s one mixed signal. Another is that the Cubs’ winter has amounted to little more in the way of additions than utility veteran Daniel Descalso and relief pitcher Brad Brach. Also absent from the fan convention was honeymooning first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Meaning third baseman Kris Bryant became a convention focus. Where it was one thing for him to criticise this winter’s second consecutive sluggish free agency market, but it was something else for him to start a feud with the division rival Cardinals, who need very few excuses to want to do to the Cubs what Sparta once did to Athens.
And all of a sudden it was enough to make you wonder what’s happened to the Cubs’ team leadership. With Rizzo on his honeymoon nobody else was there to give Bryant an assist in choosing his words carefully. The rivalry between the Cubs and the Cardinals is testy enough without Bryant declaring St. Louis a boring city and Cardinals catching mainstay Yadier Molina vowing it wouldn’t be forgotten when the dance gets underway in earnest.
All of a sudden, too, it was enough to make you miss David Ross even more. Grandpa Rossy showed the younger Cubs having fun didn’t mean leaving accountability behind. With him as a mentor they weren’t afraid to call each other out when need be. It took especially with Rizzo, who didn’t skip a beat calling out Miguel Montero when Montero—already on thin ice after he kvetched about his 2016 postseason playing time—was foolish enough to blame his pitcher for seven stolen bases against him in a June 2017 game. Big mistake.
Montero was gone post haste; he bounced from the Blue Jays to the Nationals and called it a career in December. Not the happiest end for a guy who turned his limited 2016 postseason playing time into two of the most important hits in Cub history (the tiebreaking grand slam in Game One of the 2016 National League Championship Series, and driving in what proved the Series-winning run in the top of the tenth) and who’d been a two-time All-Star with the Diamondbacks.
But Rizzo on his honeymoon wasn’t there to stuff a sock into Bryant’s pie hole before he could rag on St. Louis and get the iron into the Cardinals’ spine. When Molina answered everyone listened. There’s probably no more respected member of the Cardinals’ clubhouse. If you think Molina’s going to let the Cardinals forget that joker in Chicago who says their home turf is a bore, think again.
Nobody else was there last weekend to assure Bryant there’d be a cleaning and stuffing party in his dishonour if he got that fast and loose with his tongue again. If Ross was still around he’d have been the first to pull Bryant to one side and remind him a big mouth works best when kept shut. They’re going to need a full season of Cole Hamels joining Rizzo in the clubhouse to bring sense and sensibility back.
And who’s to say a little stronger clubhouse leadership might not have made a difference with Addison Russell? The shortstop slaughtered his market value thanks to treating his now-former wife like a punching bag; the Cubs are standing by their man giving him a very conditional second chance, though his continuing suspension means he won’t be back until May. But would a healthier clubhouse self-policing have kept Russell from making it bad to worse for himself?
The Cubs just added Brach to the bullpen. With closer Brandon Morrow possibly on the disabled list to open the season (Morrow underwent elbow surgery this winter), Brach gives the Cubs pen some needed breathing room. A veteran who can set up or close out and worked a 1.52 ERA for the Braves down last year’s stretch is a guy who keeps your bullpen off the respirator.
Except that the Cubs needed a lefthanded reliever more. And they could have had Andrew Miller for a comparative song, since Miller is looking to prove his solid return from last year’s disabled list isn’t a fluke. Bryant thinks St. Louis is boring? It won’t be Bryant’s team sending Miller out to show the Cardinals a little excitement.
Don’t look now, but nobody in the NL Central is rebuilding. Don’t look further, because the fourth-place Pirates had the best within-the-division record last year. Don’t look further than that, because while the Cubs have added just a utility infielder and a veteran relief arm, the Cardinals dealt for Diamondbacks mainstay batsman Paul Goldschmidt before they reached out and touched Miller. The Reds dealt for Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, and Alex Wood. With Rizzo the Cubs didn’t necessarily need Goldschmidt, but Puig and Kemp would have been solid outfield upgrades and Wood would be a nice piece to shift between the rotation and the pen for them.
The Cubs might have had a few more strong young guys to send out to the mound, starting and relieving, if they’d struck when Kyle Schwarber’s value was at its height. The Schwarbinator may have been one of their feel-good stories of 2016, but for all his power he’s been worth 2.7 wins above replacement-level in four seasons and isn’t exactly much more than a two-tool player in danger of becoming a three-true-outcomes specialist. If he’s not there already.
If the Cubs had flipped him at last year’s non-waiver trade deadline, they might have brought back some younger, healthier pitching. That would have been better insurance in the event expensive Yu Darvish doesn’t return healthy or, if he does, he doesn’t complete the fix on the pitch tipping flaws that got him murdered in the 2017 World Series. Now the power hitting market ain’t what it used to be for guys who can bomb but not do a lot else. Opportunity misplaced.
And unless they can find a defense-oriented taker for pricey Jason Heyward, who still brings it with his glove while still losing it at the plate, the Cubs will be hobbled by the $106 million they still owe him for the next five years. Right there is the likely reason the Cubs haven’t made more than a rumoured run at Bryce Harper, who’d be more of an outfield upgrade than either Puig or Kemp would have been. Unless they’re in the laboratory conjuring up a brew of very creative financing.
The Cubs have been very good at getting creative the last few years. They’d better be now if they don’t want to be bastinadoed by hungry teams of Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds, not to mention snide choruses of “Ahhh, wait till three years ago.”