Cubs fans are very familiar with saying, ``Wait till next year.’’ The 108 years of solitude before the splendid 2016 season ended a world’s record World Series drought is testament to that.
But this season seems destined to put an especially wrenching spin on that phrase.
Because the team basically said, ``Wait till next year,’’ before this season began. All the moves that the Ricketts family oversaw seemed to say the Cubs didn’t expect much from 2021.
There are times when that’s understandable. And I suppose this is one of them.
The core of this everyday lineup—Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Jason Heyward—was built to do what it did in 2016. Win a championship.
Considering that that team also had promising young players like Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora, Cubs fans were right to think that their team, with the right tweaking, was well-positioned to be in the hunt for more championships.
Then reality set in. It made sense that Dexter Fowler, who was older and due for a good payday, could not be kept. The problem is, the Cubs still haven’t found a capable leadoff man to replace him. And that has hurt the run-producing hitters who follow in the lineup.
Soler, similarly, was an odd man out on a team that had to choose among its young outfielders.
Back in ’16, Schwarber seemed on the verge of becoming a monster hitter. And Almora looked for a while like he might be the answer in center field. Neither, though, ended up having bats that would hold up.
Russell’s deplorable off-the-field behavior put a quick end to what had been a very promising start to his career as a skilled middle infielder.
The pitching, anchored by Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, also peaked in 2016 and then started slipping.
The 2017 team ran into the Dodgers in the NL championship series. Stuff like that happens. But in 2018, when the Cubs fizzled in late September, it became likely that 2016 would be an island, rather than a sign of more to come.
The downward spiral has continued from there. A succession of pitcher acquisitions, notably Yu Darvish, didn’t work out. And as time went on, the hitters became more and more undependable. Schwarber hit home runs, but not much else. Baez’ undisciplined approach caught up with him. Bryant battled nagging injuries.
Even Theo Espstein, the wizard who ended the Billy Goat jinx on the Cubs after he had ended the Ruthian jinx on the Red Sox, saw the handwriting on the ivy-covered wall and resigned last fall.
Nothing against his protege and successor, Jed Hoyer, but the Ricketts family seemed uninterested this off-season in making any major moves to try and build a competitive team.
In a way, that is understandable. Coming off the pandemic revenue crunch, spending was down in a lot of places, not just the North Side of Chicago. And the farm system, which was mortgaged to win in 2016, hasn’t regenerated well enough to keep the Cubs competitive.
We probably shouldn't make too much of the discouraging snippet the Cubs have shown so far this season. Except that it's not surprising. Not surprising at all.
When the front office basically says, ``Wait till next year'' before this year has begun, that's not a good thing. It isn't merely troubling for the fans. It has an impact on the players. They may try to put it out of their minds. But if nothing else, they're likely to put pressure on themselves to deliver something they don't have. Which only makes things worse.
And now, the team faces the awkward task of what to do with its core players. Rizzo, Bryant and Baez are beloved faces of the franchise. But the reality is that they have underperformed as a group, they aren’t getting any younger and the players around them aren’t championship caliber. There will be some wrenching decisions and departures at the trading deadline. But they are necessary.
So it all adds up to ``Wait till next year’’
And don’t get too excited about 2022, either.