After Mike Montgomery rifled a pitch that was fielded by Kris Bryant and thrown over to first to complete the 2016 World Series championship season for the Chicago Cubs, it was seen by many as the start of the next dynasty.
Three years later and the Cubs are in a strange grey area that no one could have predicted after the 2016 World Series.
The Cubs from top to bottom were a strong team, but the excitement and dynastic talks stemmed from the potential of the infield. The entire infield for the Cubs was coming off of an All-Star appearance and hadn’t hit their prime yet. Now, former NL MVP Bryant is getting trade rumors, Addison Russell isn’t on the Cubs anymore, and the front office has yet to have extension talks with Anthony Rizzo. In sports, there are no guarantees.
The Cubs were one of those teams who were supposed to have sustained success. They had drafted well, which allowed them to spend money on established talent while also tapping into their farm system. According to FiveThirtyEight, “Chicago boosted their payroll by 169% between 2014 and 2016 ÐÐ a record two-season increase among World Series winners.
Since 2016, the Cubs have not been able to recapture that magic. A pitching staff that was among one of the oldest to play in a world series never got that injunction of youth from the farm system, which led to some bad free agent signings that have crippled the team’s spending flexibility. The Craig Kimbrel and Yu Darvish signings haven’t brought back much positive value as of now. Both brought flashes last season of good production, but not enough to justify their contracts. Darvish made up 9.36% of the Cubs’ total payroll in 2019 and 14.09% of the total payroll in 2020. Of the five highest-paid players on the Cubs, three are pitchers.
The 2019 Cubs had the raw numbers of a successful team, but too many times they had a blown lead here, or the leadoff men couldn’t get on base. In an article written by John Grochowski of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cubs’ runs and runs allowed projected them to have a 90-game win total, a nearly six-game difference from their actual win total.
The 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons all resulted in an off-season of change. After the disappointing end to the 2018 season that saw the offense’s inability to score in the wild card game, President of Baseball Operations and 3-time World Series Champion Theo Epstein deemed that, “Our offense broke somewhere along the lines,” to a group of reporters. According to NBC Sports Chicago, the Cubs didn’t score multiple runs in 40 of their 164 games. That off-season led to one-hitter, Daniel Descalso, being signed. The 2019 off-season has led to minor signings headlined by former Cleveland player Jason Kipnis.
Epstein and Hoyer have doubled down on the front office and making improvements from within. Nicholas Castellanos, whom they traded for last season, signed with the division rival Cincinnati Reds primarily because the Cubs were unwilling to meet the four-year, $64 million contracts he signed. Epstein and Hoyer have done everything they can this off-season to try and get under the $208 million luxury tax.
The Cubs were one of three teams – the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox were the others – to pay the luxury tax in 2019. If the Cubs went over the tax again in 2020, then they would see a 30% increase in the tax, and their draft pick would drop ten slots. That refusal to pay the tax led to a frugal off-season.
The main reason for optimism in terms of the payroll for the North Siders stemmed from the Marquee Sports Network. The network, which launches on Feb. 22, is supposed to bring cash to the Cubs. The Los Angeles Dodgers own their TV network, SportsNet LA., which is worth $8.35 billion over 25 years.
The Cubs are hoping that the Marquee Sports Network will bring in revenue for the franchise, and they better hope so after owner Tom Ricketts got booed after the mere mention of the new sports network.
Though the network hasn’t brought in any money so far, Ricketts maintains that the lack of money isn’t the reason for lack of spending through free agency.
“That’s a question for (Epstein), in many respects.” “Once again, (it’s) going back to the fact that just spending money doesn’t guarantee you wins. We also understand (that) as we’ve had this core of talent, every year they have built-in raises through the arbitration model, so a lot of the financial resources are going to the players that we already have, which is great. That’s the way it works,” Ricketts told The Athletic.
The Cubs are betting from within this season, and with good reason. Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. all were well-regarded top prospects as all drafted within the top ten. Epstein has talked about improving the young talent, and it’s key to the season.
“That’s a microcosm,” Epstein said.”A lot of our other players have gone through some things, too. If you look, Schwarber really lowered his strikeout rate last year and put it all together. That second half was explosive. He was among the best probably three or four hitters in all of baseball in the second half of last year,” Epstein told Patrick Mooney of The Athletic.
Schwarber did improve his marks in BA, On-Base Percentage, Slugging, OPS and Home Runs, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the young players to show improvements. But for the Cubs, expectations have risen since 2016. They’re no longer the loveable losers, who were the feel-good story of 2016. They’ve joined the elite teams that have fans expecting World Series or bust every year.
Changing the structure of the baseball operations, hiring David Ross as a manager, and making minor signing aren’t going to instill confidence in the fan base. Dangling your former MVP in trade talks doesn’t inspire confidence. With players like Bryant, Baez, Rizzo and even Epstein’s contracts all expiring within the next three years, the time is now to salvage the dynasty that never manifested.