Don't blame Cubs' shortcomings, rebuild on owner Tom Ricketts
The Chicago Cubs kicked off the MLB trade season last Thursday, sending outfielder Joc Pederson to the Atlanta Braves for their no. 12 prospect, first baseman Bryce Ball.
Having lost 13 of the club's last 15 games and sitting eight games out of first place in the NL Central at the all-star break, the Cubs' front office proverbially waved the white flag on the 2021 season and declared themselves "trade deadline sellers."
Whether this is the end of the golden era of Cubs' baseball, or simply a stalling point, remains to be seen. Naturally, however, a lot of Cubs fans are unhappy at this time.
After winning the 2016 World Series with a young nucleus of cost-effective, promising young players, the Cubs looked the part of a blooming dynasty. The city had waited 108 years for a World Series, and it appeared the Cubs would win at least a couple of them in the 2010s. Instead, the Cubs would win just one more playoff series beyond 2016: the 2017 NLDS, in which the Cubs squeaked out a narrow game 5 victory over the Washington Nationals. Since 2017, the Cubs haven't won a playoff game.
Nearly five years after the Cubs' curse-shattering championship parade, the party may finally be coming to an end on the north side. General manager and president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has candidly expressed the team's desire to sell at the deadline. What the Cubs will sell remains a mystery. Will the team entirely tear down its core, trading Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Kyle Hendricks? Or will it simply be a quick patch-up job, akin to how the 2016 Yankees sold off parts and came within a game of the World Series the following season? We'll find out soon. But how did the Cubs get to this point, and why is the front office breaking up the team? Emotionally, fans are pointing the finger at owner Tom Ricketts, wrongly calling him "cheap."
A friend of mine attended a Cubs-Phillies game at Wrigley Field two weeks ago, at some point during the Cubs' 11-game losing streak. He spotted Ricketts in the stadium concourse, where Ricketts was met with fans complaining and jeering at him. Since buying the team, Ricketts has been known to wander around the stands and talk with fans. My friend made eye-contact with Ricketts and offered, "Hey man, we gotta get the boys off this losing streak."
To which Ricketts responded, "This has been the longest week of my (expletive) life."
Ricketts has wrongly been at the brunt of fans' criticism, and many Chicago sports bloggers, writers and radio personalities have leaned into the false narrative that the Cubs' "cheap owner won't spend money, only cares about making money, doesn't care about the fans, and is the reason for the Cubs' shortcomings post-2016."
While I haven't yet been given the official title of "unbiased fact-checker", I still believe it's my responsibility as a journalist to debunk this falsehood that continues to permeate throughout the Windy City.
The reason the Cubs are selling off parts is simple: the team probably isn't going to make the playoffs this year. It certainly isn't going to win the World Series. The writing is on the wall. The Cubs are a below-.500 team entering late July, with a steep uphill climb in front of them in order to win the NL Central, much less snag an NL wild card spot.
The team's three brightest stars — Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez — are all hitting free agency this winter. Catcher Willson Contreras is set to hit free agency the following winter. Retaining one of the four will be pricy, and retaining all four would take up much of the team's payroll. And, for what? Even with all four in the Cubs' lineup each day, the team is 19th in runs scored this season, with a minus-24 run differential. The Cubs are 20th in OPS, 24th in OBP, 28th in AVG, 18th in SLG, 19th in RBI and fifth in strikeouts. The Cubs have been a below-average offensive team this season. The team's highest-paid player, Jason Heyward (.202 AVG/.284 OBP/.619 OPS), has been ineffective as well. Contreras, Rizzo, Heyward, Bryant and Baez account for five of the team's eight regular lineup spots. The Cubs have been a poor offensive club in 2021, and the team's five cornerstone position players haven't produced enough to elevate the team towards contention.
It's important to note that the Cubs did shed quite a bit of salary entering the season, effectively dumping the remainder of Yu Darvish's contract on the Padres, in exchange for Zach Davies and four very young prospects. A common belief from the team's fan base is that had the Cubs kept Darvish, the team would now be in contention. Darvish has a 2.4 WAR (wins above replacement) this season. Let's round up and say that the Cubs are three games better with Darvish in their pitching rotation. The team is still hovering around .500, now 5.5 games out of first place (instead of 8.5), still probably not winning the World Series this year. The Cubs' pitching staff has actually been the team's greatest strength in 2021. The Cubs are in the top-half of the league in ERA and have one of the league's best bullpens (4th in ERA, 6th in WHIP). Having a competent rotation and an elite bullpen hasn't been enough to keep the team afloat though.
Arguing that Ricketts is "cheap" isn't backed by any evidence, beyond the Darvish trade. The Darvish trade freed up money for the club as it heads into rebuild territory. Is it unreasonable for a team to shed salary, coming off a shortened season in which the organization was unable to host fans in attendance for any of its games, entering into the unchartered waters of 2021? Back in December, it remained unclear as to when the city of Chicago would even allow any fans in attendance at sporting events, or even if fans would even be allowed, period, in 2021. The Cubs hauled in $471 million in revenue in 2019. In 2020, they made in $163 million. That's a 70% loss from 2019 to 2020. Is it possible that the approximate $14 million the Cubs shaved off their 2021 payroll (via the Darvish trade) prevented the organization from having to lay off some of its employees? I believe so.
From 2018 through 2020, the Cubs had one of the three highest payrolls in the National League, owning the NL's highest payroll in 2019. Over that stretch, the team won zero playoff games. It won a division title in a COVID-shortened year, lost a wild card game in 2018, and missed the playoffs entirely in 2019, again, with the NL's largest payroll. Fans sometimes mistakenly think that the more money a baseball team spends, the better the team will perform. Look no further than AL East: last year, the Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series' with the league's 28th-highest payroll. This season, MLB's richest team, the New York Yankees, would miss the playoffs if the season ended today.
The Dodgers currently have the NL's highest payroll, and are trying to win their ninth straight NL West title. Having a large sum of money to spend without a doubt gives the Dodgers an advantage over poorer teams, but it isn't why the Dodgers have remained successful for the past decade. Spending money wisely, knowing when to let go of players, and continually drafting and developing players to replenish the team's pipeline is why the Dodgers remain atop the NL West.
The Cubs outspent the Dodgers in the late 2010s and had inferior results. From 2015 to 2019, the north siders shelled out $623 million to a combination of seven players in free agency alone: Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Tyler Chatwood, Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow and Craig Kimbrel. Lester and Zobrist were both key contributors to the 2016 World Series team; I'm sure the front office would do those deals a hundred times over again. The others, though? Maybe not. Heyward's deal could go down as the worst free agent contract in Chicago sports history. Morrow struggled to stay healthy and barely pitched for the team. In Chatwood's three years with the club, he compiled a 4.70 ERA and 1.61 WHIP. Kimbrel and Darvish each struggled in their first two years with the organization, before seeing a rebirthing in their third years with the team, conveniently, when it was time for the club to begin its rebuilding process. The Cubs' problems haven't stemmed from a lack of spending money; they've stemmed from spending money on the wrong players.
By making an eight-year, $184 million commitment to Heyward, the Cubs were unable to resign budding star Nicholas Castellanos after the 2019 season. Castellanos was the team's best hitter in the second half of the 2019 season, after they acquired him at the trade deadline from the Detroit Tigers. Lacking the necessary funds and outfield space, the Cubs let Castellanos walk and are still stuck with Heyward's lackluster output for another two years after 2021. Castellanos is now an NL MVP candidate, leading the NL in batting average for the Cincinnati Reds.
The Cubs gave more money to Tyler Chatwood than fellow free agent Lance Lynn would receive from the Texas Rangers. Lynn signed a three-year, $30 million deal to pitch in Texas. In 2021, he's a legitimate candidate for AL Cy Young. You get the point. Hindsight is always 20-20, but the problem the Cubs have had hasn't been a lack of spending, but spending on the wrong pieces. Had the club spent differently, it may have produced better results.
In April 2015, the Cubs' farm system was widely regarded as one of baseball's best, possessing a number of promising young prospects such as Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras. Since Almora Jr. made his debut midway through 2016, the club has received little help from its farm system. In fact, since taking over the front office in 2011, the Theo Epstein regime has drafted just one player that has appeared in an All-Star Game for the Cubs: Kris Bryant. That's it.
Almora Jr. and Contreras were the final prospect pieces to a championship puzzle in 2016, both brought up midway through the 2016 season. Following their call-ups, the Cubs three best prospects were as follows: Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease. Over the next 12 months, each was traded to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana. Chapman, albeit a three-month rental player with a checkered past, was a necessary piece. Without his contributions, the Cubs don't win the 2016 World Series. Trading Torres for a three-month rental was a bit of an overpay — many of us knew this at the time — but given the result of the trade, it's forgivable. Would it have been nice if the Cubs could have sent Ian Happ or a lesser prospect instead for Chapman? Sure. But the Torres trade was worth it, given its result.
The Quintana trade? Not so much. The Cubs paid the price for Jacob deGrom and got Jose Quintana. In Quintana's four years with the Cubs, he clocked a 4.24 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. He was an average pitcher. Meanwhile, the Sox picked up two cornerstone building blocks for what looks like a very bright future on the south side. The Cubs emptied their farm system on two trades, and have since failed to replenish the pipeline.
The Cubs have hit some rough luck over the last five years. After leading the Cubs in RBI in the 2016 postseason, shortstop Addison Russell appeared to be a rising star, before off-the-field issues derailed his career. He's now playing in the Mexican league. Almora Jr. was leading the NL in batting average midway through 2018, and was off to a good start in 2019, before fouling off a ball at Minute Maid Park that injured a young fan. He since has struggled mightily at the plate, and was non-tendered last-offseason. Ben Zobrist was a 'glue guy' from 2016 on, until marital problems kept him off the field in 2019, and apparently closing the book on what was a very good career. Kyle Schwarber's 2016 ACL tear would also fit into this category. Part of the Cubs' steady decline can be attributed to things outside of the front office's control.
And the truth is, all of these things happen commonly, and are understandable. Were their some missteps from the front office along the way that led to the Cubs inability to win a second World Series? Absolutely. Those missteps can be traced to Epstein, not Ricketts. Even so, very rarely do teams remain competitive for more than five years. It's just a part of the circle of life in sports.
John 12:24 reads, "Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds."
In order for the Cubs to have built a winner in 2016, the old way of doing things needed to die, so that a new seed could be planted, watered, and multiplied. Every plant has its own lifespan. Sadly for fans, this team's lifespan is likely coming to a close. It's time to uproot, so that new seeds can be planted, watered and grown for what Hoyer hopes will be the next era of Cubby excellence.
Do fans have a right to be frustrated and unhappy? 100%. But Ricketts had very little, if anything, to do with the team's steady decline. In fact, Ricketts should be credited and celebrated for laying the groundwork for the Cubs' first World Series trophy in 108 years. Shedding a culture of losing and pushing for excellence starts at the top.
Some parts of the team's decline were out of the Cubs' control entirely. It happens; it's sports.
At the end of the day, there's more than enough for Cubs fans to be grateful for. The Cubs accomplished what they set out to do: they finally won one and they gave multiple generations of fans something they'll remember forever. My grandma passed last year at age 95. Thankfully, she got to see the Cubs win one before she rounded third and headed home.