When Theo Epstein and his team took charge of baseball operations for the Cubs, one of the things they promised to do was to create an organization that could compete every year for a sustained period of time.
The idea, of course, is to get into the postseason tournament every year. The more you do that, the more chances you have to win it all.
And they have done just that. Three consecutive postseason appearances hadn’t been done by any Chicago Cubs ballclub in 109 years, not since 1906-07-08, and now we have 2015-16-17 to add to that part of franchise history.
Just one team each year can be the last team standing. This year’s Dodgers look like last year’s Cubs in that sense, the team that roared through the regular season and has done what was needed in the postseason. This year’s Cubs didn’t quite have enough to repeat, although they did manage to vanquish a team, the Nationals, that was probably a better overall squad. That’s part of the randomness of the postseason. This year’s Cleveland Indians can tell you a bit about that, too.
The San Francisco Giants just got finished with a seven-year span (2010-16) in which they won the World Series three times.
Now we’d take a run like that, right?
The Chicago Blackhawks have made the Stanley Cup playoffs for nine straight years. In that time they’ve had the NHL’s best regular-season record just once, their conference’s best record two other times, and have won three Stanley Cup championships.
We’d take a run like that, too, right?
Let’s bring this back to baseball. Within the last 30 years, there have been four franchises that have had extended postseason runs and been to and won World Series. Here’s how those four clubs did during their runs of dominance.
Atlanta Braves, 1991-2015
This is actually 14 consecutive playoff appearances rather than 15, because of the 1994 strike that cancelled the postseason. The Braves were in position to be either a wild card or division champion that year, but here I’m dealing with only what actually happened in the postseason. This is an impressive run because the Braves won their division all 14 times, and with 94 or more wins 11 of the 14 seasons.
They played in five World Series in that 14-year span, but won it all just once.
Boston Red Sox, 1998-2013
The Red Sox had a drought to bust, and it took them until their fourth playoff appearance over this 16-year span to do it. Over those 16 seasons, they made the postseason nine times and played in the World Series three times, winning all three.
Interestingly, they won their division only twice in those nine playoff seasons. The other seven were all wild-card years. Their first World Series title was won as a wild card, the other two as division champions.
St. Louis Cardinals, 1996-2015
The Cubs’ biggest division rival made the postseason 13 times in this 20-season span, winning the N.L. Central 10 times and qualifying three other times as a wild card (and in 2001, they tied for the N.L. Central title with the Astros, but under the rules of the time, since both teams qualified, Houston was awarded the division crown because they won the season series between the two teams).
The Cardinals played in four World Series during these 20 seasons and won twice. Both of the losses were to the Red Sox.
New York Yankees, 1995-2012
This 18-season span saw the Yankees make the postseason 17 times. The only year they missed was 2008, when Joe Maddon’s Rays won the A.L. East and the Red Sox finished second.
This is the most postseason appearances by any of these four teams. Still, of the 17 seasons, they made the World Series just seven times, winning four of them, including three straight from 1998-2000, the last team to repeat as champions.
You might quibble with my use of the word “just” above, but there’s a point to be made. Even though the Yankees were the most dominant team of any over that time period, they were eliminated in the division series seven times. Three of those seven division-series losses came in years (2002, 2006, 2011) when the Yankees had the best record in the American League.
The point is obvious. There are myriad reasons why it’s difficult for any team in any professional sport to repeat as champions. In the Blackhawks’ case, the NHL salary cap is one of the primary reasons. In baseball, it’s more of the ebb and flow of franchises building winning teams. The Dodgers, for example, won the N.L. West from 2013-16 without advancing to the World Series, and twice in those four years they were eliminated in the first round.
Theo & Co. are smart baseball people. They’ll sit and analyze the reasons the Cubs were eliminated this year, many of which are pretty obvious, and plot fixes to them that will put the Cubs back in the mix for 2018. For those of you upset with Joe Maddon, forget about that right now, please. He’s among the best managers in baseball and the team likely doesn’t do these three straight postseason appearances without him. He played the hand he was dealt this year, and in some key ways that hand was flawed. In fact, I’m hoping the Cubs sign Maddon to a contract extension this winter. He’s got two years remaining, and Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have four years left on their deals. It might make sense to sync up those contracts so they all expire at the same time.
We are disappointed today, but likely not surprised, that the Cubs’ 2017 season is over. It was still a pretty good ride, with quite a bit of excitement, good performances, and hope for the future.
There’s an excellent chance the Cubs will be back in the postseason for another shot at a World Series title in 2018. And that’s all we, as fans, can really ask for.