Dynasties are like sand castles. They need to be built by an expert hand, crafted over time to make sure that every detail fits together precisely. Once completed, beachcombers stare aghast at the brilliance, fortitude, and glory of the structure. Then, the tide rolls in, the sandcastle is washed away, and the process begins anew.
The sandcastle in Chicago isn’t gone yet. But the tide is coming in, and its moving fast.
This was supposed to be the year the Cubs got back to the top. After the euphoria of a curse-breaking 2016 championship, who can blame them for falling short last season? 2018 was the comeback. With the hangover behind them, they were World Series favorites.
Now? They’re the first team eliminated from the 2018 postseason, after watching a rival celebrate on their home field in back-to-back games.
“It sucks losing this early,’’ said team leader Anthony Rizzo. “What day is this, Oct. 2? And we’re out? It really sucks.’’
Fans in Wrigleyville will be looking for someone to blame. If only Yu Darvish had lived up to his contract this season ($25 million this season for 0.2 fWAR). If only Kris Bryant’s shoulder hadn’t pulled an Andrew Luck and he could play 162 fully-healthy games. Hell, maybe if Terrence Gore had leaned in and taken the HBP in the 13th inning, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.
“We don’t consider [the season] a success,” Jason Heyward said. “We didn’t pop any bubbly this year. So how can it be?”
This is a World Series-caliber roster, and that’s not hyperbole; this team looks remarkably similar to the one that hoisted the trophy in 2016. Anthony Rizzo and Bryant anchor the infield corners. Javier Baez still plays up the middle, backed by Jason Heyward in the outfield. Willson Contreras has developed into a strong backstop, catching pitchers like Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. They even added contributors like Cole Hamels, Steve Cishek, and Daniel Murphy.
Don’t call it a lack of leadership or drive, either. “Our guys give a s***,” Lester said in the postgame. “That’s what’s hard to portray. I would hope that the fans understand that.” The locker room didn’t feel antagonistic or bitter. There was no finger-pointing or backstabbing. Just a lot of sad ballplayers who knew they should have been able to get the job done.
Somehow, someway, this team wasn’t good enough to get the one big win they needed to. They played solid baseball in September, but weren’t good enough to hold off the charging Brewers. They had a one-game playoff to relegate Milwaukee to the Wild Card and secure home field through the NLCS, and only got on the board thanks to Anthony Rizzo’s moonshot. They had another one-game playoff to advance against the Colorado Rockies, a team that was playing it’s third game in three days–all in different time zones. Their offense mustered only one run against one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Whatever clutch gene they had in 2016 got lost somewhere at the World Series Parade.
While the players and fans bemoan what could have been, the front office turns to the important questions of the offseason. What to do about Addison Russell, who’s currently on administrative leave pending an investigation into allegations of domestic assault? Do they extend Joe Maddon, who’s contract expires at the end of next season, or let him squirm throughout 2019 wondering if he’ll be back on the North Side?
In the wake of the painful exit, some might call for additions to the roster. Theo Epstein could make a splash in the free agent market, but he also has to worry about the millions of dollars already invested in lodestone contracts like Jason Heyward (due $106 million over the next five seasons), Yu Darvish ($91 million over five), and Tyler Chatwood ($25.5 million over two). The once-vaunted farm system has already been sucked dry in pursuit of a second ring, with only catching prospect Michael Amaya on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100–and he comes in at #91.
Whatever they do, the Cubs need to find whatever magic propelled them to that memorable run in 2016. Maybe they can arrange for Jason Heyward to give a rain-delay speech every game, or sacrifice a billy goat on the corner of West Addison and Clark.
Chicago will come into 2019 as one of the favorites for the World Series. The core from 2016 is still here, and it’s still young and talented. Bryant, Rizzo, and friends may not be done hanging pennants in Wrigley just yet.
But the tide is creeping ever closer.
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