The date is November 2, 2016. It is the 10th inning of a game that seemingly has gone on forever, but yet, no one can stop watching. The time is well past 11 PM. The score is 10-9 in the bottom of the 10th inning with 2 outs. Michael Martinez awaits the pitch from Mike Montgomery. The crowd is on their feet. Terry Francona, the Indians manager, looks on. He is the only one that looks calm, chewing rapidly on his bubble gum. Anthony Rizzo looks nervous, so does Kris Bryant. Mike Montgomery looks flustered. He pitches, and Michael Martinez makes contact, a slow roller down the 3rd base line. Kris Bryant fields the ball bare handed and throws it to Anthony Rizzo’s awaiting glove.
Just like that, the Cubs have won for the first time in 108 years. It is now 2019, and the Cubs have missed the playoffs. What happened? To understand this, we have to go back to Joe Maddon’s first year as the Cub’s skipper, 2015.
That year, he supposedly worked his magic as they finished 97-65, landing the NL’s 2nd wild card spot. They beat Pittsburgh, and they advanced all the way to the NLCS, until getting swept by the Mets.
The next year, 2016, they were poised for a breakout season. Jon Lester had gotten unlucky the year before, and Jake Arrieta was ready to match his Cy Young winning performance from the last year. Kris Bryant was a star in the making, and the Cubs had landed Jason Heyward in the offseason, also landing Ben Zobrist, two proven stars. Everything seemed to work out, as they had no competition in the NL Central and they cruised to their Division title. Everything clicked all at once. Jon Lester had a breakout year, Jake Arrieta got 18 wins, Anthony Rizzo hit .292 while launching 31 home runs, and Kris Bryant won the NL MVP Award hitting .292 and sending 38 long balls.
This team was a flashy team, and all of America was rooting for them, which led to Home Field Advantage at almost anywhere they went. This was the perfect storm for the Cubs, and it led to a World Series win.
In the offseason, Dexter Fowler left, along with their leadoff spot. The next year, 2017, was not as successful as 2016. Heading to the break, they had a losing record. The second half of season was set to be an easy ride, though, and they took advantage, winning the central at 92-70, a solid record.
In 2017, the offense was better statistically, but the pitching was much worse. They had a 3.95 team ERA, and they let up over 125 more runs than 2016. So what happened to the pitching? The starting pitching rotation was largely unchanged, except for Jason Hammel leaving for Kansas City. The relief pitching lost Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, and most importantly, Aroldis Chapman.
So what made the rest of the returning pitchers so bad? Jake Arrieta fell from 18-8 to 14-10, Jon Lester went from 19-5 to 13-8, and John Lackey went from 11-8 to 12-12. Kyle Hendricks was injured for most of the year and finished 7-5.
The front office recognized the problem, and they traded two of their top prospects, Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease, for Jose Quintana. He went 7-3 in the rest of the year. In large part, the Cubs’s downfall is to blame on the pitching.
But what was going on with the batting? Well Kris Bryant hit .295 with 29 dingers and Anthony Rizzo hit .273 with a team leading 32 bombs. The real disappointment, though, was Kyle Schwarber, who was doing so badly that they sent him down to AAA. He came back and managed 30 home runs, but while hitting .211.
They needed a rebound for 2018, and that’s what they got, although they only improved by 3 wins. In the offseason, they acquired Cole Hamels and they got Daniel Murphy mid-season. In the pitching department, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey left, and they added some relievers to strengthen the bullpen. The result was better stats than the last year, although still not great. The Cubs wound up in the first wild card spot, losing to the Rockies in 18 innings.
The fans were disappointed. The organization was not happy, and since Joe Maddon, the team’s manager was only under contract for only one more year, they needed a strong rebound. That they did not get missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
Now, we are going to try to pinpoint where it all went wrong. As mentioned in the title, this is about the window of contention. The key players to this rebuild were Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Willson Contereras, and Javier Baez. These were the young players, the centerpieces if you will. The plan was to build around them with players like Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, Kyle Hendricks, Aroldis Chapman, and Ben Zobrist. Now if you build a team with all of those players on it, you will win a championship.
Arrieta left after the subpar 2017 season, Lester is in decline, Fowler left after 2016, Kyle Hendricks is still on the team, although not as effective, Chapman is gone after 2016, and Ben Zobrist is in decline.
If you still have a team with Anthoy Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Contereras, and Baez, you will be successful, right? Did I mention pitching? No. After Chapman left, Lester is in decline, and Arrieta dashed, the team was left with no pitching, except maybe Kyle Hendricks. If you constantly have to score in every inning, what if you are in a slump? This could lead to a score like 10-8, where you didn’t score in an inning, so you lose.
The bullpen is horrible. With the addition of Craig Kimbrel, the Cubs thought that they would get a reliable closer. Well, no. They didn’t. For your bullpen to not blow games, you have to make it a blowout. Problem is that the game will not always be a blowout. In close games a bullpen is essential, especially when your starting pitcher gets blown up.
Let’s say that the bullpen does it’s job, and it all comes down to Craig Kimbrel. That would be good that he’s in because that means that the Cubs are in the game, right? Well soon they’ll be out of the game because he’s pitching. His 2019 stats are: 19 IP, 6 HR, 26 SO, and an impressive 5.68 ERA. Now I wouldn’t say its all Kimbrel’s fault.
The blame should go partly to Joe Maddon, as his decisions are a bit questionable. He gives his team the lineups in advance before the series. He bats a .230 hitter at leadoff. Yeah sure the game is changing. But that does not mean that a .230 hitter can bat leadoff. It is an established fact that you should bat a high average player leadoff.
If your only strength is hitting, then what happens when your not hitting? A lack of hitting and a questionable manager set the Cubs up for this. With no depth in the farm system, the only option that projects a World Series in the future is cleaning house. If they do that then Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer will be disgraced. Embarrassed. And eventually fired.
Theo Epstein is the one that brought the Cubs a championship. Getting rid of him would mean destruction for the Cubs. So that is not an option. So what do you do when a Window of Contention closes?
You have 2 options, but really one. I’ll get to that in a minute. Option 1: Clean house. Trade all of the players you have left for prospects, and build from the ground up. An example is the Royals. After the Royals won the World Series in 2015, they had a mediocre year in 2016, finishing 81-81. In 2017 they thought they maybe had a chance, but they finished 80-82, another mediocre year. In 2018, they cleaned house, and the wheels came off the bus. They finished 58-104, and in 2019 they finished 58-104 again, and they have some decent talent, such as Adalberto Mondesi.
And then there’s Option 2 which is to add talent, and screw yourself up for the future. An example is the White Sox. In 2008 they finished 89-74, and were tied for the division lead with the Twins. Whoever won made the playoffs because of the way things worked back then. There were no Wild Cards, and if you didn’t win your division, you didn’t make the playoffs. The White Sox won, and they didn’t go anywhere in the playoffs. In 2009, they finished 79-83, a mediocre season. They still thought that they had something left in the tank, and they did as they finished 88-74 in 2010. They went back to 79-83 in 2011, and that’s when they should’ve realized that they weren’t going to make the playoffs with that roster. They kept letting it go on and in 2012 they finished 85-77, not good enough to make the playoffs. 2013 was a horrible season, and they finished 63-99. They should’ve hit rebuild right then and there, but they didn’t so the average seasons continued with 73-89, 76-86, and 78-84 finishes until they hit rebuild. Well they haven’t made the playoffs in 11 years because of the decision not to clean house.
Remember how I said that there were only 2 options, but really only 1? The only real option is to rebuild, and in the Cubs case they will not make the playoffs for a while. They will fall right into the same trap as the White Sox did 11 years ago.
But what other choice do they have? None. They are trapped. Cornered. Backed into a wall. They have nowhere to go but down, and once Theo Epstein makes his decision, it’s all over. There is no turing back from here. Although it may not be pretty, you’d better get used to the Lovable Losers again for 10 years where as it could just be 5. A lack of pitching, poor managing, and some wrong decisions here and there effectively led to the downfall of the Cubs.