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Willson Contreras’ comments and the future of the Chicago Cubs

We are at a crossroads in the history of our favorite team. Is it time to break them up?

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

I kind of buried the lede in the game recap of Saturday’s loss, for which I apologize. Lousy weather, lousy game, you understand, I hope. With today’s rainout, I want to say a few hundred words about that.

For those of you wondering what I’m talking about, it’s some postgame comments from Willson Contreras, posted by Paul Sullivan in the Tribune:

Afterward, catcher Willson Contreras issued a stinging indictment of his teammates for phoning it in. Asked if the effort was there, he replied:

“No, I don’t, to be honest. I feel like everybody was off. Everybody was distracted. I don’t know why. Probably because the All-Star break is pretty close. (Sunday) is the last day of the first half. I don’t think that way, but I didn’t think we were on today.”

Contreras said he considers himself a team leader but didn’t feel like he could say anything to his teammates about the effort.

“I think there is a lot going on,” he said. “There are a lot of things I’d like to say, but I’d rather keep it to myself than say it. That’s it.”

Contreras declined to say what it might be like after the break. The Cubs have many imminent free agents who will be available on the trade market and might be prominent sellers before the July 30 trade deadline. They can’t afford to play “distracted,” which Contreras knows.

“That’s on everybody’s work ethic and job,” he said. “We have to win as a team, but also I cannot ask everybody to play like I do or to play like Baez and I play. Everyone is different. I know they might be tired, but I’m here to win. I’m here to compete, and that’s what I like to (get) from everybody else.”

Last week, I wrote about some eerie parallels between the 1973 Cubs and the 2021 version, mainly, that a team that had a core of players together for seven years, generally in contention, was starting to fall apart. Among other things, the ‘73 Cubs went through a lot of losing after being in first place for a significant part of the season, much as the ‘21 Cubs have. The parallels aren’t exact, of course, but in 1973 things got so bad that Fergie Jenkins tossed some bats out of the dugout near the end of an 8-31 run, something that was shocking 48 years ago.

While the Cubs have been in freefall, I held out some tiny bit of hope that maybe they could right the ship this year and perhaps run off some wins and sneak into the postseason. Given Contreras’ remarks and the poor play of the team — now on a 6-19 run, worst in baseball since their 38-27 peak June 11 — I no longer feel that way. In fact, it’s absolutely time to break up this team, just as the franchise did after 1973.

Surprised? Well, so was I after Willson’s comments.

Here’s the problem. There are really, in my view, only two players with real trade value on this team, Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Chafin. Even Kris Bryant, who was playing at MVP level a few weeks ago, is hitting .179/.257/.284 (17-for-95) in his last 28 games since June 5. Teams aren’t going to send a high return to the Cubs for two months of a rental player who’s playing at DFA level.

The same is likely true for Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, both of whom are down from career norms. It’s the play of these three over the last month, plus a bullpen who had been great having the wheels fall off, that’s taken the team out of contention.

In addition to Báez, Bryant, Chafin, Kimbrel and Rizzo, the following Cubs who are either on the active roster or 10-day injured list are free agents after 2021: Zach Davies, Joc Pederson, Jake Arrieta, Jake Marisnick, Eric Sogard, Dan Winkler, and Kyle Ryan. Of those, Pederson has a team option that will almost certainly be declined, Arrieta likewise, and Marisnick has a $4 million mutual option that the Cubs might actually exercise. Marisnick has played well and brings good energy to the team and honestly, ought to be playing every day in center field.

So that’s at least 11 players the Cubs will say farewell to this winter, and at this point maybe it’s the right thing to do, with the possible exception of Rizzo, who has meant more to this team both on and off the field than perhaps any of the others.

If I am reading the numbers here correctly, the Cubs are on the hook for only $45 million of contracts beyond this year. That includes deals for Jason Heyward, Kyle Hendricks and David Bote and buyouts for Pederson, Arrieta, Marisnick, Chafin and Kimbrel.

Am I saying “blow it up”? Basically, yeah. A few weeks ago this wasn’t the case, but between the bad recent play and Contreras’ comments, it would seem to be the right time to bring new blood into the North Side of Chicago. With only $45 million committed beyond 2021, Jed Hoyer & Co. could swing some trades and free-agent signings and perhaps accomplish the “reboot” Hoyer says he wants, as opposed to a rebuild. His idea is correct; I don’t think the Cubs fanbase would tolerate a 2012-style rebuild again — and beyond that, there are no guarantees a rebuild of a style used a decade ago would work in the 2020s.

Make no mistake: We have been treated to a Golden Age of Cubs baseball from 2015-21. Yes, it would have been nice to win more than one World Series, but there’s a reason no team has repeated as World Series champion in 20 years. It’s hard, and especially hard the way the sport is structured now. Nevertheless, we got that title all of us had wanted ever since we became Cubs fans and perhaps thought it would never come, and several more years of competitive baseball.

For that, I am eternally grateful.

For now? Trade who you can, and it’s likely not going to be much, and let the rest go and get draft-pick compensation. It would not surprise me if Rizzo and Báez accepted qualifying offers, which would give them at least one more year in blue pinstripes. Perhaps Contreras can be extended. His comments weren’t wrong. I don’t blame David Ross for this; Ross is a good baseball man but he can only play the players he’s been given, and this year has been a melange of injuries and inexplicable poor performances.

Celebrate the last few years, and hope Jed Hoyer & Co. know what they’re doing as they try to put together another Cubs champion.


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