That team was very much like the one we are watching in freefall this summer: A club that was in its seventh consecutive season of contending in the National League, with a core of beloved ballplayers.
The 1973 Cubs raced out to a 48-33 first half and after splitting a doubleheader with the Mets July 1, led the NL East by eight games. It felt as if the Cubs would finally, at last, bring home a division title, perhaps a NL pennant or even a World Series.
Then they started losing, and losing, and losing some more. Even after losing four of seven, they still led the division by five games on July 10. But then... a six-game losing streak. One win. A seven-game losing streak. Three wins. Three losses. One win, and then an 11-game losing streak that pretty much killed any chance at a division title, the only way to make the postseason at the time. 48-33 became 56-64, an 8-31 run.
Yikes. Things got so bad that at one point mild-mannered Fergie Jenkins got angry and flung bats out of the dugout, just a couple games before that 11-game losing streak finally ended. That would be like seeing Kyle Hendricks do that in 2021, completely out of character.
The 2021 Cubs were 38-27, a season-high 11 games over .500, on June 13. They’re 4-16 since then. That’s just about halfway to 8-31. Yikes, again.
The 1973 Cubs righted the ship to some extent, and the division was extraordinarily weak. They went 19-15 over a five-week stretch — that’s not great, but it passed for good that year. On September 22, after defeating the Phillies, with eight games remaining in the season, they were 2½ games out of first place... but behind four other teams. The first-place Mets were one game over .500.
I wrote about what happened next here back in October 2019; you can read that article for details, it’s not my point to rehash that now.
The parallels between 1973 and 2021 aren’t exact. First, back then the trading deadline was June 15; that deadline didn’t move to the end of July until 1987. The ‘73 Cubs were high-flying early; in mid-June there seemed no urgency to add to the team and so they didn’t. The only acquisition of any note that they made was Rico Carty, who had starred for the Braves in the late 1960s and early 1970s before injuries ruined his career. All Carty could do for the Cubs after they got him from the Rangers August 13, really, was pinch-hit and play a bit of outfield, and not very well; he went 15-for-70 (.214) in 22 games before they sold him to the A’s in September. (Naturally, with the DH in the AL, Carty went on to have several fine seasons in Cleveland and Toronto, playing until 1979.)
Also, 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.)
Those trades didn’t really work out; the only players acquired in all the aforementioned swaps who had any real impact on the Cubs were Rick Monday (later traded for Bill Buckner), Bill Madlock (who they should have kept instead of trading him for a broken-down Bobby Murcer, but that’s another article entirely), Jerry Morales (a decent ballplayer whose career was ruined when Sparky Lyle hit him in the knee with a pitch in the 1977 All-Star Game) and Manny Trillo (who wound up having his best years after the Cubs traded him to the Phillies).
Part of the problem was that these deals were all made by general manager John Holland, who was reaching the end of a near-20 year tenure in the position and seemed badly outmaneuvered by other GMs. The game was passing the Wrigley regime by.
It resulted in three pretty bad years from 1974-76 (though the 1975 team was third in the NL in runs, set a franchise record for walks that wasn’t broken until 2016 and might have contended if their pitching hadn’t been atrociously bad), three years of sort-of contention in 1977 through 1979 until the league caught up with modestly-talented Cubs teams, and two execrably awful seasons (1980-81) until the team was sold and Dallas Green’s leadership eventually brought the 1984 NL East title.
What does all this have to do with the 2021 Cubs? Well, as the current losing streak gets longer and longer and the Cubs remain far out of first place, calls are being made to make trades, break up the core, move on to whatever lies in the future.
What I want to ask you today is: What do you think the Cubs could even get for some of the core players? Part of the reason this team has lost 10 straight games is the utter failure of some of the soon-to-be free agents. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez and Kris Bryant are all playing well below their career norms. Through this bad stretch I have thought, “If only these guys would just play as they have over the last six years...”, but they haven’t, and aren’t showing any signs of coming out of their slumps.
All three of those players would be rentals for any acquiring team. What sort of prospect haul are you going to get for that? Not much, in my view.
Willson Contreras, with one more year of team control, might bring a bit more, but he too is having a down year.
Zach Davies? Yet another pending free agent having a mediocre year. What do you get for him apart from the proverbial “A-ball lottery ticket”?
In my view, there are exactly two Cubs with any real trade value: Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Chafin.
Could the Cubs get an Aroldis Chapman-like haul for Kimbrel? My inclination is to say no, because the teams that might want to trade for a closer don’t seem likely to want to take on Kimbrel’s contract. If the Cubs eat the remainder of Kimbrel’s money this year? Then, maybe. Kimbrel is having perhaps the best year of his career, the year we’d hoped he’d have in 2019.
Chafin, too, is having the best year of his career. Unlike Kimbrel, who does have a track record of being close to this good, Chafin doesn’t. Before 2021 his career ERA was 3.67 and he had 3.6 career bWAR in seven seasons. You’re not likely to get more than one of those A-ball lottery tickets for Chafin.
Beyond that, Kimbrel and Chafin are also pending free agents, so what are you going to get for guys who are rentals?
So what does Jed Hoyer do? Hold on to those upcoming free agents and make some of them qualifying offers at the end of the season, in order to get draft picks when they leave? Rizzo and Báez, having down years, might actually accept those QO’s. Then you’d have to hope they have better years in 2022, to bring up their free-agent value — except we are looking at a looming labor dispute next year, which could bring free-agent signings to a screeching halt this coming offseason.
Could the Cubs right the ship over the next couple of weeks and squeeze back into contention in the NL Central, as their 1973 counterparts did for a short time in the NL East? Sure, maybe, but... as has been said here many times, “There are no guarantees.”
Which leaves everything in a bit of a conundrum. In 1973, the core players definitely could not be traded anywhere when the collapse hit due to the earlier trade deadline. They were all swapped after the season, with no big-money contracts to consider, though Ron Santo became the first player to exercise 10-and-5 contract rights by rejecting a trade to the Angels before finally being traded to the White Sox. (Punsters of the time thus dubbed the 10-and-5 rights “the Santo clause.”)
Now, though? With millions of dollars on the line? What do the Cubs do? It’s not as easy a choice as you might think.
And just imagine the state of the franchise, and how we as fans might feel, if the Cubs had not won Game 7 in 2016 and were now staring at a 113-year drought. This core of players did give us what we had all dreamed about all our Cub fan lives, even though it did not deliver multiple championships. In some ways, that’s enough. Remember that the last six-plus years have been a run not seen by the Cubs franchise in at least 80 years, and try not to forget the great times we’ve had just because things aren’t good now.
In other ways, though, this isn’t enough, and I suppose we’ll just have to see what Jed Hoyer and Co. do over the next 24 days.
Fasten your seat belts, this ought to be an interesting ride.