No matter what, no matter if they fail to return to the World Series for another 108 years, the Cubs’ most recent rebuild will always grade as an unqualified success. There’s no other conclusion when a franchise wins its first championship in more than a century; Theo Epstein is a baseball Olympian, Joe Maddon is a city savior, Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant and David Ross are Wrigley legends for life.
But after losing the NLCS in a lopsided five-game series capped by an 11–1 Dodgers demolition at Wrigley Field on Thursday, the Cubs appear to be entering a more perilous period than almost anyone would have expected from last season’s ostensible juggernaut-in-waiting. Last fall, in the wake of the Cubs’ first title since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, The Ringer’s Michael Baumann laid out the multifarious strategies by which the team could become a dynasty; now, that outcome seems far less likely.
The Cubs still won their division in 2017, and they reached the NLCS for the third straight year — a notable streak for a team that had not even reached the playoffs in three straight years since 1906–08. Again, unqualified success and unprecedented happiness for living Cubs fans. But 2017 was also a slog, in which the Cubs won the fewest games of any division champion and didn’t secure a winning record until after the All-Star break. The defending titleists could be forgiven a World Series hangover, but the underlying factors for that extended slump give pause to the dynastic discussion.
Here’s the good news: The team’s offensive core is still intact, and Chicago boasts perhaps the majors’ highest concentration of the sport’s most valuable resource: good, young, cost-controlled talent. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are legitimate superstars, and both corner infielders plus Addison Russell are under team control through at least 2021. The supporting cast of Javier Báez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ won’t even enter arbitration for another few years.
At a minimum, that youth is sufficient to make the Cubs perennial contenders. In Bryant, they already have an MVP, after all. But 2017 was a year of stalled development for several important Cubs youngsters, and a year of unexpectedly harsh aging for the few veterans on the roster.
The Schwarber outfield experiment returned negative results, as the slugger who’d be a designated hitter in the AL and a first baseman on a team that didn’t already have Rizzo unsurprisingly rated as one of the worst defensive outfielders in the majors. He didn’t expand beyond the slugger label either, running a barely league-average bat (102 wRC+, where 100 is average) despite mashing 30 homers. Russell regressed mightily in his third big league season, posting a career-low 84 wRC+ and reaching base less frequently than Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis. After amassing 3.9 wins above replacement in his All-Star age-22 season, Russell was worth just 1.4 WAR in 2017, and his path toward shortstop stardom — once an apparent lock — now seems more dubious, or at least circuitous, than it did a year ago. Báez might always exist more as a highlight-show staple than a consistently productive MLB bat.
The two big-money batters, meanwhile, looked old, broken, or both for much of the season. Ben Zobrist (82 wRC+) and Jason Heyward (88 wRC+, up from 71 in 2016) were worth a combined 8.1 WAR in 2015, the year before they signed with Chicago, but combined to produce just 1.2 wins above replacement this year. Heyward’s outstanding contract figure (six years, $127.5 million after this year) looks like one of the worst in baseball.
Bryant, Rizzo, and Contreras are Chicago’s only sure-thing position players, and while Russell et al. might rebound next year, the young players almost across the board look less likely to turn into anything better than 2-to-3-WAR players. (At 2.2 WAR, Báez had the team’s highest total outside the Bryant-Rizzo-Contreras trio in 2017.) There’s nothing wrong with two to three wins, to be sure; a team full of such players is a strong playoff bet. But it’s something less than the dynastic core that baseball fans thought they saw last winter.
The future of the pitching staff is even more vexing. The bullpen will require a near-complete overhaul before next season if Maddon’s distaste for almost his whole complement of relievers in each of the last two Octobers is any indication, and the starting rotation isn’t as sturdy as it once appeared.
This offseason, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are both free agents, as is closer Wade Davis. That’s two-fifths of the rotation gone, as well as the only reliever Maddon trusted in these playoffs. Jon Lester’s days of acehood might be in the past, as the southpaw just finished his worst season in five years and will turn 34 before next Opening Day. Kyle Hendricks and José Quintana, Thursday’s losing pitcher, are both reliable arms, but the Cubs already pushed in valuable prospect chips this season to fill one rotation hole by trading for Quintana; they won’t have the ability to do so with two open spots next year, nor do they possess any minor league arms trusty enough for a promotion. Perhaps Mike Montgomery (3.38 ERA in 14 starts and 30 relief appearances this year) will step up, but compared to the Dodgers’, Nationals’, and Diamondbacks’ staffs, Chicago’s is bound to look inferior on paper.
The Cubs aren’t afraid to spend, but the 2017 free-agent class lacks both the depth and high-end quality of recent iterations and the upcoming, star-studded 2018 group. If Chicago doesn’t want to re-sign Arrieta for his 30s or add Yu Darvish, the winter rotation pickings will be slim. Every team in baseball could use Shohei Otani, the so-called Babe Ruth of Japan, who reportedly plans to sign with an MLB team before next year, but the Cubs might need the potential two-way superstar more than their rivals atop the MLB hierarchy.
That notion is a broader issue for the 2018-and-beyond Cubs. Where Epstein’s roster construction once gave the impression that Russell’s stardom, Schwarber’s outfield utility, and Montgomery’s starting potential were luxuries for an already-favorite, now those developments seem like requirements for Chicago to maintain that superior status. The club’s win-now moves have placed its future standing into hazier territory.
No Cubs prospect appears on the most up-to-date top-100 lists at MLB.com, Baseball America, or FanGraphs; at the latter site, only one player in the system even qualified for the honorable mention section. In July, Chicago traded outfielder Eloy Jimenez (MLB.com’s no. 4 prospect) and pitcher Dylan Cease (no. 57) for Quintana, and sent infielder Jeimer Candelario to Detroit for reliever Justin Wilson, who didn’t make the Cubs’ NLCS roster. Last year, the Cubs shipped Gleyber Torres — now MLB.com’s no. 1 prospect — to the Yankees for half a season of Aroldis Chapman. (The Cubs reportedly refused to swap Schwarber for Andrew Miller, instead trading Torres for Chapman. After an inconsistent Schwarber campaign and Torres’s accelerated breakout, one wonders if Epstein would take a redo.)
The other reason the minor league pipeline is tapped out, of course, is that its top products have already ascended to the MLB roster. The Cubs’ tanking plan, by which they drafted Bryant, Schwarber, and Happ in the top 10 in consecutive years, brought them unrivaled young talents and a World Series title, and the very fact that the Cubs would consider an NLCS loss a failure is a sign of paradoxical success. But now they’ve climbed to the top of the “W” flagpole and felt the rush of championship winds. A year later, the pressing question is whether they’ll consistently compete to reach those heights again.