Pick any moment before 2016 in the past century of Cubs history, then ask yourself this: Is there any other point in those 100 years in which fans, media and the team itself would view a 95-win season as a colossal disappointment?
That’s where we’re at with the 2018 North Siders. A late charge by the upstart Brewers enabled Milwaukee to leapfrog Chicago and win the NL Central. The Cubs poured salt on their wound by losing the NL Wild Card Game, triggering an early playoff exit that still leaves a bitter taste in everyone’s mouths, weeks later.
The rumbles of discontent started with reports that Cubs management. Such rumors should always be viewed with extreme skepticism, especially given the Cubs’ huge success from 2015 through 2017 (three straight NLCS appearances, and of course, the World Series to end all World Series). Still, Maddon looks likely to enter the 2019 campaign in the final year of his contract, with no assurances for an extension.
The bigger kerfuffle came when Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said the club “never operated with untouchables,” throwing the door open to potential trades involving every Cubs player, including former NL Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Kris Bryant. Epstein would later clarify his stance, saying that while the no untouchables policy does apply in theory, the Cubs’ current goals revolve around adding to core players like Bryant and infield cornermate Anthony Rizzo, rather than trading them away.
You could argue that the buzz surrounding Maddon and Bryant amounted to nothing more than taking the team’s status quo and trying to gin up controversy around it. But a closer look at the Cubs’ recent fortunes suggest there might be a bit of fire coming out of all that smoke. The cause of that discontent? The struggles of some of Chicago’s best young players.
- 2018 Result: 95-68, second place in NL Central
- Key free agents: None
- Needs: Outfield, shortstop, relief pitching
Let’s start with an optimist’s approach on Bryant, and assume that his 2018 woes were entirely due to a nagging shoulder injury that zapped his power, with a resulting swing change prompting him to believe he’ll return healthy and even more powerful in 2019 following those swing tweaks. That still leaves us grasping for answers when it comes to some of Bryant’s teammates, starting with Kyle Schwarber.
The hefty lefty swinger broke into the big leagues in 2015, and immediately drew comparisons to Babe Ruth, both for his prodigious power and portly physique. Those comps were always ridiculous and over the top, but Schwarber’s 16 homers in 69 regular season games during that rookie campaign, followed by a rampage through the 2015 playoffs that included a missle of a home run that cleared the big scoreboard in right field at Wrigley, gave Cubs fans reasons to dream on another potential Jim Thome, if not quite the next Ruth. That too has proven to be too optimistic. Schwarber missed most of the 2016 season with a knee injury, then posted identical good-but-not-great .467 slugging averages in the past two seasons. Moreover, it’s tough to be a star (much less a folk hero) when you’re so religiously platooned you get benched in a do-or-die playoff game, as Schwarber was in this fall’s Wild Card Game against the Rockies.
Schwarber is much slimmer than he used to be, and he’ll head into opening day next year having just turned 26, giving him some time to improve. But right now, the former No. 4 overall pick and hoped-for franchise cornerstone is just a failed catcher turned platoon outfielder; if he were a few years older, he’d be scrounging for one-year deals to latch onto somebody’s bench.
Willson Contreras will also be 26 when the Cubs take the field next spring. He too has a lot to prove, following a bitterly disappointing 2018 season.
Contreras broke out in a big way a year earlier, batting a huge .276/.356/.499 with 25 home runs in his first full season as a starting major league catcher. That offensive output, combined with widely-praised defensive instincts, made him a star, and a contender for the title of best catcher in baseball with Buster Posey’s decline phase well underway. Then, Contreras’s numbers cratered. Last season, he hit a meager .249/.339/.390, his home-run total falling by more than half while both his walk rate and strikeout rate got worse. Contreras plays a premium defensive position and hasn’t been condemned to platoon hell, so there’s more optimism surrounding him than Schwarber. Still, it’s tough to predict whether the Cubs will spend the next few years watching the star who emerged in 2017, or the middle-of-the-road player who languished in 2018.
The biggest disappointment of all has been Addison Russell. Acquired in a 2014 deadline deal that looked incredibly shrewd at the time, the top shortstop prospect played a leading role in the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run, cranking 21 home runs and playing elite defense. Both his offensive and defensive numbers have tailed off since then, with Russell batting just .250/.317/.340 in 2018. Though he too offers the promise of youth (he turns 25 in January), Russell’s future has also become significantly clouded by allegations of abuse made by his ex-wife. Russell at the end of the season, and now the Cubs need to ask themselves if they want to go to arbitration with a player with an off-field cloud over his head who’s been a replacement-level hitter for two years running and might top $5 million in 2019 salary.
Schwarber is just one piece of what was one of the least productive outfields in baseball last season, so the Cubs will certainly shop the outfield aisle, from Bryce Harper on down. They’ll look for a shortstop, whether it’s just a Russell insurance policy or someone considerably better. And like every contender, they’ll try to buy the best collection of bullpen reinforcements they can. (Only one team’s bullpen (Atlanta) walked opposing batters at a higher rate than Cubs relievers did in 2018.)
Still, the larger question remains: Will the young core of Rizzo, Bryant, Javier Baez, Schwarber, Contreras and Russell lead the Cubs to another World Series title … or will this team look very different the next time the Fall Classic pops up on their calendar?