After five playoff appearances in six years, and fresh off a third NL Central crown in that same time period, it’s rather frustrating to reflect upon the uninspiring nature of this squad. Winning a tepid division in a 60-game season doesn’t feel good after a two game sweep in the Wild Card round at the hands of the (upstart?) Marlins. Neither does the writing on the wall the Ricketts’ wish to cut as much payroll as they can while feigning a desire to remain competitive in 2021. And Theo Epstein’s potential early departure, or at best, a lame duck campaign, further disintegrates whatever momentum exists as Hot Stove season begins to unfold.
Still, it seems just a bit premature to eulogize this core, however tempting it may be. Questions abound, for both the Cubs specifically and the league generally. We don’t yet know how this offseason will unfold for free agents, and it’s hard to discern what the trade market will look like — especially for offensive players at the nadir of their careers, with but one year left of team control. Despite the angst and hand-wringing the fanbase exhibits, the Cubs aren’t a bad team. Heading into 2021, they’ve been projected as the best team in the NL Central from numerous outlets, which certainly is attributable (in part) to a rather winnable division. But if that’s the floor for this roster, life ain’t all bad — even if the current ceiling is a quiet departure in the first round of the playoffs.
Their fate can change for 2021, but will the front office do anything to make that happen?
Can the Cubs Respond Without a Rebuild?
There’s no sugarcoating it: 2020 was a nightmare offensively, one that’s felt repetitive for three years running. The stats need not be exhaustive here, but ranking 22nd in Fangraphs’ Offensive Runs Above Average (Off), 21st in wRC+ (91), 27th in K% (25.7), and 21st in OPS (.705) is just awful for a team this talented. Certainly, it’s reasonable to suggest that one (or all) of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber rebound in contract years. Perhaps more believable is that Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras — whose 2020 seasons were still above league average even if disappointing individually — can put up numbers in 2021 more reflective of career lines.
Yet relying on the same players and hoping for different results — in what would be the fourth straight season since the offense began to noticeably depreciate — would be altogether tiring. On the flip side, trading some of the core away now, with little-to-no trade value, lacks enough impact for a proper retooling of the current roster. And, certainly, whatever prospect capital KB might attract in a trade, for example, pales in comparison to what he would have netted the Cubs had they decided to begin retooling last offseason.
Of course, with the non-tender deadline (December 2) looming, we’ll find out just how frugal this front office might have to be. What’s truly astonishing is how little shock would exist if the Cubs non-tender the likes of Schwarber to save a few bucks. Hell, even Bryant’s name has surfaced as a non-tender candidate — which while almost certainly an impossibility, the idea itself is an indictment on the state of the Cubs.
All of this at a time when the team’s front office will soon transition, with rumors circulating Theo Epstein may either step down early or be wooed away by a team like the Phillies. The overall uncertainty of this team, at a moment in time where questions exponentially surpass answers, deserves unyielding criticism.
Everything Remains Up-in-the-Air
With the offseason underway we’ve begun to look at a few names the Cubs could explore in free agency at The Dugout, and those deep dives will continue as the offseason unfolds. These aren’t blockbuster names, of course; the realistic approach is to examine ways to shore up the rotation or upgrade the offense at reasonable prices.
That said, while these names are limited to veterans with contracts the Cubs might be able to afford, there’s no telling what draconian budget restrictions ownership will impose. And if a modest bidding war unfolds for any target, it’s likely the Cubs will bow out.
Last month I wrote about the unpredictable nature of this offseason for the Cubs. The only assertion I felt comfortable making is that this would be yet another disappointing winter, and that assumption still feels true. There remain several avenues the Cubs might explore, but without a clear understanding of how much the budget will be cut, what value (if any) exists in trades, and what bargains ultimately exist on the open market for second and third tier free agents, uncertainty persists as a bitter reality for Cubs fans.
The fact that trading Yu Darvish is even speculatively asked says enough about the state of this team. It’s not pretty, and the more the Cubs act like a small market team, the more antsy the fanbase will become.
Sure, it’s possible the Cubs will be a better team next year. It’s also realistic to shudder at the thought of trotting out the same lineup and expecting different results.
Who knows where the front office will pivot this winter — if they even shift the roster at all. I’m not holding my breath that the Cubs are quietly aggressive on the market for quality veterans on the cheap, and certainly I’m gun-shy about trading away assets from the core for peanuts (except for Schwarber). Altogether I’m lacking any genuine excitement, which remains incredibly hard to believe.
Drowning in mediocrity is the new normal for Cubs fans. Let’s hope we don’t get used to it.
Featured Photo: Nam Huh, Associated Press
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