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You're probably too optimistic about the 2021 Cubs

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The Cubs stand at a crossroads. Where do they go from here?

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

One joy of being a bit logical is that I don't have to always seek happiness in my articles. I can speak the truth, as I see it, and if that varies from the rosy scenario, so be it. I took the ugly rebuild for what it was likely to be. I wasn't far from being correct. As the executives wavered from what they had predicted, I posted warning signs. Now, as the car seems lost in a ditch with traffic whirring by, I'm willing to point out the obvious. The Cubs are far from elite, and your view of the club is likely too optimistic.

The most obvious question as the offseason takes shape is what will team ownership spend on player payroll. I've taken grief for taking the owners' side on these matters before. Though I could argue I haven't really taken a side, assessing ownership spending is the next obvious step. After claiming severe losses in 2020, it's doubtful 2021 spending will approach 2020 spending, which was considered ridiculously low by many fans. What will be 2021 spending? Regardless your stance on Jon Lester, Kyle Schwarber, or anyone else, "much less" is a reasonable assessment.

How much less? Is $180 million the number? Maybe $160? Can the ownership box sink to $150 or lower? Will that include or exclude buyouts for Lester and the pittance for Daniel Descalso? (Those don’t count against the luxury tax, but it’s still money spent.) With each reduction, and any player retained from 2020 with an arbitration bonus due, the likelihood of an impending "quality free agent addition" reduces even more. Toss in the possibility/probability of a work stoppage in 14 or so months, the impetus to spend in this offseason sinks in comparison to what it was a year ago at this time.

Tom Ricketts hasn't been shy about announcing staff reductions. From coaches to scouts and support staff, they're mostly understandable. If the losses are catastrophic, some valued ancillary staff will often get purged. Some of those might even be the ones who have actually been useful in upgrading the developing young players. Most of the 30 MLB squads are looking at staffing with the subtlety of a private equity firm, which isn't good for anyone following that path.

What about player development? In a season where many teams debuted quite a few players in a shortened season, the Cubs debuted no new hitters, and only two rookie pitchers. One of those was Brailyn Marquez, who struggled mightily in the season finale. The other was Tyson Miller. If spending is down, and player development is substandard, that is less than optimal.

As to the upcoming draft in July 2021? The Cubs have parted or will likely part with a number of scouts, before a college season with quite a few more initial questions than answers. College squads only had four weeks of games, instead of 12, in 2020. The top 100 prospects for July might shuffle more than usual, all with fewer scouts to assess talent. The Cubs draft 21st overall, and just about every team drafting after the Cubs is at the adults' table as far as player development. The Cubs are on a card-table with a few teams not entirely sure how to adjust to the new metrics.

But, the Cubs do have one rather anticipated international name in Cristian Hernandez. He might see big-league action by 2024, or not. He will likely take 60 percent or so of the signing bonus pool. Teams will no longer be able to add extra, as if the Cubs had the spare pieces to send off in trade.

I still see the Cubs as good as any team in the NL Central in 2021. Most of those owners will face the fiscal calamity in the same way the Cubs will. Some team, though, will add Trevor Bauer. The other quality free agents will find homes, as well. Trying to justify continued employment, Cubs executives might try to reprise trading for a Matt Garza type to inspire confidence in the fans.

I'm looking at trades from a 2023 perspective. That doesn't mean punt or tank, but there's not enough lipstick at Maybelline to make the Cubs look like a top three team in the National League in 2021. I hope the minor leagues roll in 2021, but that seems in doubt. Until something comes along that will likely elicit comments, I'll prepare for next season, whatever that entails. If you're a realist? Hope for something similar to 2020.