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Some thoughts on the Cubs’ competitive window

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Does it end after 2021? Or can they keep things going past then?

Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

I can hardly go two days on my Twitter timeline without hearing something about the Cubs competitive window. The competitive window is apparently going to close with the certainty of the doors on the closing credits on “Get Smart”. Apparently, said window will smash shut after the 2021 season, regardless of any actions the Cubs take. Because of the certainty, the Cubs should apparently make rather short-sighted investments. Today, I look at “the Cubs competitive window.”

A competitive window is a fabrication. In some instances, a team (in any sport) might have its talent ability tumble like a house of cards over an off-season. That is when a window discussion is valid. For instance, it’s realistic to think the Indians could have a falling off once Francisco Lindor leaves in free agency. When Michael Jordan left the Bulls for the second time, they (unsurprisingly) tumbled from 62 wins and a title to a 13-37 record the next season.

However, with the Cubs, that sort of talent blowup won’t necessarily happen. The Cubs have a few players who could be eligible for free agency after 2021. With Kyle Hendricks and David Bote already extended, and room against the spending levels more plentiful next season, which players, and in which order, will get their contracts renegotiated is up for discussion. Willson Contreras, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo seem the most logical to keep longer.

What the “window closes in 2021” proponents seem to miss is that lousy contracts will hinder extensions. That’s a bit of a math concept. The Cubs have the second-highest payroll in the league. While the ownership and the brass aren’t terribly captivated with going “over the financial limit”, next season, that will be less of a concern. Ben Zobrist’s contract expires. So does Cole Hamels’ pact. A few other lower-end deals will lapse, as well.

The key to expanding the competitive window will be (and this shouldn’t be a surprise) locating low-cost pitching talent that plays at the MLB level. The “broad stroke incompetence” of Cubs pitching development is premature. The Cubs upper-minor league level pitching is (stop me if you’ve heard this before) more deep than top-heavy. Five or six arms could position themselves for a “fifth man in the rotation slot” to help create even more financial maneuverability.

Continuing to get value from the pipeline keeps the window open longer. Remaining successful would keep players interested in staying around. Doubly so if the competitiveness is retained with a degree of financial restraint. If the Cubs can keep under the next penalty phase, and avoid losing a draft pick or international spending amount, that may or may not change the landscape of 2019, but it would certainly help to extend the window.

The window is about the future. It isn’t about the present. If Miguel Amaya develops, and has a career anywhere near the range of a Willson Contreras, that helps the Cubs window. His first years would figure to be cost-controlled, and cost-controlled regulars that are above league-average help with long-term contention. Nico Hoerner might not need much more than another year in the minor leagues. If he is as useful as projected, he would help with the window. If the Des Moines relievers are useful long-term (any of them, really), it limits the reliance on fickle relievers with guaranteed contracts who can’t be shuttled.

Player selection and development drive windows of contention. When the Cubs were below-average at player assessment/development, they rarely had lengthy windows of contention. If they can mix above-average selection/development with top tier spending, they could have a very lengthy window of contention. Which quality players wouldn’t want to align with those parameters?

Lost in the window of contention banter is that it’s about the National League Central as a whole. When talking about the window now, it’s because the Cubs appear equal to or better than the teams in their division. If that applies for the next four years, then smashes shut, that’s when the window goes away. If it’s fifteen more seasons, that’s when it ends.

The window is a relative comparison to the Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds. If a division rival makes a move that is long-term counter-productive, that helps to extend the Cubs window. The Brewers getting Christian Yelich for relatively little made the competitive window more of a challenge. If the Brewers are pushed into a short-term addition at a high future cost, that helps the Cubs’ window. Few recent transactions have helped the Cubs window as much as the Cardinals’ signing of Greg Holland, who was costly both short- and long-term for the Redbirds.

Whether you care about the competitive window or not is immaterial. If you are concerned about it, remember that it has to do with decisions that will make 2022 through 20xx more or less competitive. It’s quite likely the Cubs are attempting to extend useful players to extensions, while wrestling with decisions on players who have been less successful. The window is about success at the affiliate levels. The window is about turning players who are currently in extended spring training into long-term useful contributors. The window is about success in the draft.

Some Cubs fans don’t seem to care about if the team will be viable after the 2021 season ends. That’s one way to look at it. Some think that aggressively chasing the next few years, with a “We’ll deal with the created acid bath when it comes” mindset is a constructive one. As I look to the future, the Cubs have a mildly worse system compared to the rest of the division. However, I don’t see the Reds, Pirates, Cardinals, or Brewers being clearly “10 games better” than the Cubs in 2022, unless the Cubs do something counter-productive financially.

The Cubs know where they need pipeline improvement (mostly, outfielders with upside) and drafted as such last June. Some people are about short-term benefit, regardless the long-term blowback. You can own that orb if you want, but I doubt the Cubs are going that direction. Being competitive is about representing being a 90-win team, as often as possible. To improve the window, an occasional move should be made with an eye to the future, not the present. Over-commitment to the present hurts the future. The front office doesn’t want their collective noses getting pinched as the window closes.

Poll

When do you think the Cubs will be significantly worse than another division foe?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    2022
    (65 votes)
  • 7%
    2025
    (40 votes)
  • 11%
    It depends on the current Cubs players.
    (66 votes)
  • 69%
    The Cubs should be able to remain competitive as long as they keep developing talent well, and limiting the bad contracts.
    (396 votes)
567 votes total Vote Now