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Reflections on one of the craziest weeks in Cubs history

The Cubs traded away beloved core players and signaled they were ready to restart.

Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB via Getty Images

I’m as guilty of thinking the following as anyone else who’s a Cubs fan:

“Well, maybe if they can just extend Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez, even if Kris Bryant leaves as a free agent, we can still keep some of the guys together and they’ll win next year!”

In the end, reality bites. That was never going to happen. Not the “keeping together,” and not the winning.

Here’s one number I think is quite significant: Since the beginning of the 2019 season through Thursday, the last day all three of those players were Chicago Cubs, the team’s record was 168-158. That’s a .515 winning percentage, equivalent to an 83-79 full season.

Is that what we all want? Just a bit over .500, maybe squeezing in a wild-card game appearance?

Of course not, but that’s the way this franchise likely would have headed if Tom Ricketts and Jed Hoyer had heeded the cries of fans who love those three players and never wanted to see them play a game in another uniform. But as the trades went down Friday, one after one, the realization sunk in: It was time to move on.

The Cubs team that won the World Series in 2016 was one of the youngest teams in history to do so. From Joe Sheehan in the Washington Post in 2017:

Youngest Position Players, World Champs, 1969-2016

Mets (1969): 25.9
Cubs (2016): 27.4
Reds (1990): 27.5
Marlins (2003): 27.7
A’s (1972): 27.7
Pirates (1971): 27.7
Giants (2012): 27.8
Twins (1987): 27.8
Cardinals (1982): 27.8
Braves (1995): 27.9

The expectation was that that young core of the Cubs would continue playing at that level, or possibly even get better, and perhaps win two or three World Series.

It didn’t happen. Bryant got hurt. Rizzo declined. Báez did get better, for a time, finishing second in NL MVP voting in 2018, but then he started declining as well. All three will be 30 or older in 2022. It seemed to become easier to retire those three and other Cubs as teams learned they were susceptible to the high fastball, or in Javy’s case, continuing to flail at pitches outside the zone. “Never change, Javy,” I started saying this year in the bleachers whenever he did that. He was on pace to break the Cubs franchise strikeout record, his 131 K’s translating to 204 over a full season, when the trade froze his Cubs number at that figure — a number that leads the National League.

Now look at that list of teams above again. Of all the ballclubs in it, just three won multiple titles — the Giants, who won again in 2014, the Twins with most of the same guys in 1991 and the A’s, who won three straight from 1972-74. The others either deconstructed (2003 Marlins), came close again (Pirates, who won with a different group in 1979 but had several division titles in between) or just vanished (Mets, who made the WS with a barely over-.500 record in 1973, then lost 90+ in five of the next seven seasons).

I’m not going to tell you how to be a Cubs fan — that’s clearly your choice. But to say you’re going to boycott the team, or not watch games, because management decided to move on from beloved players, in my opinion is self-defeating. My view is that if you are a Cubs fan, you love the team, you love its history, you love it win or lose, and yes, if you’ve been around long enough you’ve seen lots and lots of losing.

But you, unlike generations of Cubs fans past, have also seen a World Series winner just five years ago. The Cubs fan of 1913 could also say that, and that fan would not have believed you if you told him (and yes, it was almost all men back then) the team would not win another one for 103 years.

This time is different, I think. The players we all loved when they jumped around on the Cleveland mound November 2, 2016 like 10-year-olds, in the words of Pat Hughes that wonderful night, simply weren’t getting it done. Could Jed Hoyer & Co. have signed them to contract extensions? Perhaps, but in the end, what’s the point of doing that? Just so three players we will all hold in our hearts forever could come back and play .500 ball for a few more years?

Instead, Jed and his crew ripped the band-aid off. Yes, it hurts, our Cubs fan souls will miss these men terribly. It felt awfully strange to see Anthony Rizzo in a Yankees uniform, No. 48, homering in whatever they’re now calling Marlins Park Friday evening [VIDEO].

I wrote about parallels between the Cubs now and their 1973 season a few weeks ago. The situations then and now aren’t exactly the same, but the overall picture is: A team of beloved players reaching the end of its shelf life, broken up. Back then it happened after the season, in part because by the end of June, the ‘73 Cubs were 48-33 and led the NL East by eight games before collapsing, much as the 2021 team did after being in first place early. From that article:

MLB was still a couple of years from the dawn of free agency, so there were no expiring contracts that the team would have felt pressure to do something about, as they do now. Nevertheless, when the 1973 season ended in yet another failure, the core was broken up. Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo, Glenn Beckert, Jim Hickman and Randy Hundley were all traded away after that season was over. Billy Williams lasted one more year and Don Kessinger two before they, too, were dealt. (Bill Hands and Ken Holtzman, other core players, had been traded a year and two years earlier, respectively.)

I’ll add to that list Bob Locker, who put together a 2.3 bWAR season in relief in ‘73 before being traded away, and Milt Pappas, a key Cubs rotation piece from 1970-73 who was released just before Opening Day 1974.

The Cubs did acquire some useful players in those deals, including Rick Monday (for Holtzman), Manny Trillo (for Williams), Jerry Morales (for Beckert) and Bill Madlock (for Jenkins), and if only the Cubs had held on to Madlock, maybe the 1977 season ends differently. GM John Holland, who made all those trades, was nearing the end of his Cubs tenure in 1973 and the game seemed to have passed him by.

That’s not the case for Hoyer, who received a large bounty of prospects and young players in trading away eight players who were on this year’s Opening Day roster:

There’s some real talent in that list, particularly Nick Madrigal, who’s injured now but likely to be the Cubs’ Opening Day second baseman in 2022.

We have heard the phrase “re-tool” rather than “rebuild” batted around recently. Something to remember: The Cubs have only $40.5 million committed to players for 2022: $22 million to Jason Heyward, $14 million to Kyle Hendricks, $2.5 million to David Bote and a $2 million buyout to Jake Arrieta.

That should leave lots of room for the team to add free agents. Should they bring back one or more of the core? I’ll leave that as a “maybe,” and it really depends on how they perform the rest of the year. Bryant is likely not coming back, that seemed to be a given no matter how the Cubs did this year. Rizzo and Báez? It remains to be seen. There could be other useful players, including pitchers, available on the FA market, and that needs to happen because honestly, I’m tired of seeing an entire starting rotation not be able to break 90 miles per hour. Of those starters, only Hendricks is consistently effective with that repertoire. Other teams have parades of 95-plus guys — the Cubs need that.

About that return, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts issued this somewhat cryptic statement:

I want to personally thank Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and Kris Bryant. Together they played critical roles for one of the most successful runs in Chicago Cubs history. They each secured a place in the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere. While their days taking the field together as Cubs have come to an end, they gave us memories we will hold forever.

Now does that mean one or two, but not all three, of the core Cubs traded could return? Or are all three gone for good? That’s up to Hoyer. Right now I think I’d say “Let’s move on.” It was weird to see Ron Santo in a White Sox uniform and Billy Williams at DH for the A’s:

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Getty Images
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Strange, no? But both returned to the Cubs fold as beloved elder statesmen. So did Ryne Sandberg after managing the Phillies, as did Andre Dawson after playing for the Red Sox and Marlins and working in the Marlins front office.

Similarly, Rizzo, Báez and Bryant will forever be Cubs World Series champions, welcomed at reunions and perhaps as members of the organization in some way after they’re done playing. Some of the players received in this week’s trades might be among your personal favorites in a year or two or three.

Yesterday I wrote this appreciation of Rizzo’s time with the Cubs and I don’t want you to think I’m leaving Báez and Bryant out, I’ll be writing up similar articles on them, and I think that’ll happen Monday, a Cubs off day.

As for me? I’ll go to Cubs games and watch them, partly because I write about them here, but also because I love Chicago Cubs baseball. The rest of this year won’t be anything great baseball-wise, but recalling how much baseball was missed during the 2020 shutdown, I still want to watch Cubs baseball games from Wrigley Field, and on TV when they’re on the road, as those have filled my summer afternoons and evenings for decades. Hundreds of different players have worn the blue pinstripes over those years and soon, new stars will do that and produce, we hope, another World Series winner. There’s certainly a better chance of that happening now than, say, in 1974 after the beloved 1969 core was sent packing.

It will be strange for me to have no meaningful September baseball to write about here in 2021 — that hasn’t been the case for seven years. That’s all the more reason to savor the last six seasons, a Golden Age of Chicago Cubs baseball that you lived through, that you now have stored away in your personal memories, times you will cherish forever.

It’s a cliché, but I’m going to use it anyway to wrap this article:

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.