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How should the Cubs approach the 2021 season?

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The answer isn’t as easy as you think.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The purpose of this article isn’t to belabor the things we already know about the Chicago Cubs, but I will sum them up anyway.

They didn’t hit for almost the entire 2020 season. Just two regular players (Ian Happ and Jason Heyward) had anything close to their normal offensive output. Others were worse, or in some cases (Javier Baez) at historic career lows.

This is not new. They haven’t hit in postseason games since 2016. They seem enamored of “launch angle” — home runs or nothing. It was mentioned on Friday’s Game 2 broadcast that the Cubs are close to the worst team in baseball at hitting high fastballs. You know this, I know this, everyone knows this and certainly the other teams know it, plan for it and at the very least, the Marlins executed that game plan quite well in the two-game sweep of the Wild Card Series.

So this is going to have to change. The question is, how?

(I should note here that when management tried to change this hitting approach by hiring Chili Davis, players rejected it so vehemently that Davis was fired after just one season.)

“Well trade all those guys and sign some free agents!”, you might say, and if this were going to be a normal offseason, perhaps that could be done, despite the mediocre to poor performance of many.

This is not going to be a normal offseason. We still don’t know what’s going to happen with the pandemic, whether there will be fans permitted at spring training games or even when the 2021 regular season begins. Teams have lost money and so free-agent signings — not just for the Cubs but for all teams — might be problematic. There will be players who ordinarily might get decent free-agent deals (Jose Quintana, for example) who might wind up having to take minor-league contracts just to get to some team’s spring training. There might be players non-tendered who you might be shocked to hear getting those non-tenders.

Trade Kris Bryant? Okay, what are you going to get for him coming off a bad, injury-plagued season? And who replaces him at third base?

Trade Kyle Schwarber? Sure, but Schwarber’s .701 OPS was a career low.

Trade Javier Baez? See above.

Trade Willson Contreras? Are you kidding? He improved his pitch framing and while he’s just about the only current Cub with real trade value, who do you replace him with?

Trade Jason Heyward? Why? He was the team’s most productive player and became a real team leader this year, if he wasn’t already.

Trade Anthony Rizzo? Face of the franchise.

You see the problem, I think. In some ways, the current Cubs team reminds me of where the Cubs were after 1972. Just as now, that ballclub’s core had posted six consecutive winning, contending seasons. They were talented enough to win a World Series; we all know the reasons it didn’t happen. The current core now has six straight winning seasons and did win a World Series. But like that group after 1972, they seem aging and need some sort of jolt to return to their top performance level.

Cubs management decided to give that group one more shot, in 1973. And for half a season, it worked. At the halfway point of 1973 the Cubs were 48-33 and had an eight-game lead in the NL East.

Here’s where I say “What could possibly go wrong?” And the answer at the time was, “Everything.” The ‘73 Cubs followed that 48-33 start by going 8-31, and that is not a misprint. Only the awful 1999 and 2000 teams were as bad, or worse, over a 39-game span. That team managed to crawl back into contention in a division where only one team (the Mets) finished over .500, but eventually finished fifth and the team was broken up the following winter.

That’s what I think will probably happen this winter — incremental changes, not wholesale dumping of players at a fraction of their true value, and one more attempt to win with this core more or less intact. This weird 60-game season hasn’t likely been the best way to evaluate performance. Are the Marlins really that good, or would they have faded in a 162-game season? The Nationals had the same 19-31 start in 2020 that they had in 2019. In a full 162-game season, do they come back and win 93 games again? Does Javy Baez come out of his funk and have a good offensive season if there are 102 more games?

No one knows the answers to those questions, and there’s one more factor: Theo Epstein. Theo is in the last year of his contract. When he left Boston, he famously said that 10 years in one place was enough. My personal feeling is that he said that to cover up the fact that the Red Sox, his hometown team, were likely going to fire him if he hadn’t left for the Cubs. Do the Cubs offer Theo a contract extension, or do they start again in 2022 with someone else? I don’t have any doubt that Theo would like to put together another winner, whether he sticks around or not.

Keeping the core together? Well, that’s an interesting question. This core group did something that hadn’t been done in over a century, and so I suppose many of us just figured they’d get better, be around for many years, do it again once or twice (at least) before they were done. That didn’t happen. But given all the factors — pandemic, money, weird 2020 season — I suspect the players around now will get one more shot at winning in 2021. Here are some of the thoughts of the Cubs core group after Friday’s loss:

I would not expect baseball transactions (trades, FA signings, etc.) this offseason to resemble last year’s at all. And then we have a possible labor stoppage of baseball in 2022, with the current MLB/MLBPA collective bargaining agreement due to expire after the 2021 season. Given the contentious negotiations between owners and players to get baseball on the field in 2020, I can’t imagine the upcoming talks will be any easier.

So there’s the state of the Chicago Cubs entering the winter of 2020. We’ll always have 2016, no matter what happens going forward. Stay safe, everyone, and hang in there until Cubs baseball returns.