In this space this morning, you’d normally see a “Three up, three down” article about three good things and three bad things about the Chicago Cubs from the previous week’s action.
That’s not going to happen today and I suspect you can guess why. With two off days and a rainout, the Cubs played only four games in the week that ended Sunday, so not much happened, and all of what did happen was pretty bad. They lost all four games and got outscored 37-8. They hit .216/.284/.365 (32-for-148) with 35 strikeouts and went 1-for-43 with RISP. Pitching-wise, the staff posted an 8.35 ERA in the four games and allowed 16 home runs.
So finding “Three up” would, I suspect, have been pretty difficult.
Instead, I’ve been thinking over the last few days about the direction of this team and what’s brought them to the point where they have lost six straight and dropped to 13 games under .500. Since last year’s selloff, the Chicago Cubs franchise has a W-L record of 44-73, a .376 winning percentage which would be equivalent to a 61-101 full season record.
At the beginning of the season I thought the Cubs had enough talent to play .500 ball, and if everything went right maybe sneak into wild-card contention, especially now that there are three wild card teams.
Obviously, not only did everything NOT go right, pretty much everything has gone wrong.
The five starting pitchers originally projected to be the Cubs’ rotation were Kyle Hendricks, Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, Wade Miley and Alec Mills. Those five have combined for 33 starts, none by Mills, who was just activated last week. Three of the five (Stroman, Smyly and Miley) have spent time on the injured list, Miley more than once. Hendricks hasn’t pitched in 12 days with what’s described as “dead arm,” though he’s currently scheduled to go Tuesday. In general, though there have been some good starts from this group, mostly they haven’t pitched to expectations. If they’d been anywhere close to what they’ve been in the past, the Cubs likely would have won a few more games.
Relievers, too, haven’t done what the Cubs had hoped. David Robertson missed some time, so did Chris Martin, and I could recount game after game where relievers simply couldn’t stop the other team from scoring. Scott Effross has been a bright spot amidst the darkness and I could see him being part of a Cubs bullpen when they return to contention... whenever that is.
Apart from Willson Contreras and Ian Happ, the offense has been mostly a black hole. Patrick Wisdom is who he is, a hitter with prodigious power who strikes out a ton. His current .774 OPS is a bit below what he really needs in order to be a useful MLB player; if he could get that to .800 and stay there, with his good defense he could be part of a lineup on a contending team. If, that is, he’s the fifth- or sixth-best hitter in such a lineup. The Cubs need a lot more of those kinds of hitters to get there.
Which leads me to this. The assumption among almost everyone is that the Cubs are going to trade Contreras at the deadline. Last year, Jed Hoyer made multiple deadline deals and did bring in some very good talent — almost all of whom are playing at the A ball level. Is that what he and ownership really want? To stock up the farm system for what, a 2025 or 2026 contending team? The fanbase won’t stand for another rebuild, even if Hoyer refuses to call it that.
It has been pointed out to me that for decades, even when the Chicago Cubs were a perennially bad team, they always had a marketable star or two, even going back as far as the 1950s. Fans loved Hank Sauer, and he was the 1952 NL MVP, even when the team was losing 90+ games. After that came Ernie Banks, and then Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins, and of course for a while the team with those guys was good, though they never won anything. Bill Buckner succeeded that group as a popular star, and then Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson and Mark Grace brought folks to the ballpark through some lean years in the 1980s and 1990s. Sammy Sosa, however you feel about him, absolutely brought people to Wrigley Field even in many 90+ loss seasons. Pitchers like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior continued to draw attention to the Cubs in down years. When the team deliberately tanked in 2012, it was understood that was necessary, and the stars coming up through the system (Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber) were the promise of better things to come, which did eventually culminate in the 2016 World Series championship.
But now? With the team falling into disrepair, you’re going to trade your most popular, marketable star, Contreras? If Hoyer wants to build the so-called “Next Great Cubs Team,” why would he want to do that without the league’s best catcher? Who’s going to replace him? The Cubs do have some catching prospects, but they are all several years away and there are, of course, no guarantees for any of them. Contreras will require a big-money contract to stay in Chicago. Why not give him five years and $100 million, or 4/80 with a fifth-year vesting option? Would that do it? If not, go higher. Ownership can afford it, even if they tell you they can’t. I repeat: This fanbase is not in the mood to stand for another multi-year rebuild.
Which brings me to this point. It seems to me like the Cubs are being run as if they had been taken over by a private equity firm which comes in, lets people go, strips all the assets and simply runs the company for however much profit they can make. Let me be clear: I do not begrudge Cubs ownership for wanting to make a profit. They’re running a business and I get it. However, the idea of profit over winning, when you are running a sports team whose purpose should be winning, doesn’t make any sense to me. With the Chicago Cubs, if you don’t spend money to improve the on-field product, you’re going to make less money in the end, because the performance on the field is going to suffer, fewer people will buy tickets and fewer still will watch the games on Marquee Sports Network, a channel a lot of folks already don’t like (and for which I’ve heard ratings are way down, not surprising given the poor on-field performance).
The Cubs, I think, are treading on dangerous ground. This is especially true following the pandemic, during which many people decided they could spend their money on things other than baseball, and during the current inflationary trend, which makes coming to a baseball game (with the price of gas soaring) unaffordable for many. We are almost certainly at the point where simply opening the gates to Wrigley Field and assuming a full house will pour in, win or lose, is gone. I’ll say it a third time: This fanbase is in a bad mood already. Foisting another rebuild on them would be a disaster.
Thus I ask this open question to Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and team management: Is this what you want? Stripping the assets down to nothing and hoping on a wing and a prayer that some of the “kids” become major league stars? If they do, will you then do the same thing you did with the previous core, trade them off when they reach free agency? Are the Cubs doomed to the same cycle we just went through, again and again?
It feels as if we’re in the late stages of the Wrigley ownership era again, with the team marketing “beautiful Wrigley Field.” That might have worked when a box seat was $3.50 and bleachers cost $1, but not at current ticket prices, as noted in last week’s attendance watch article here. The size of the crowds this week should be a good leading indicator.
I had hoped for a bit of Cubs progress in 2022; injuries have ruined that. In addition to the pitching injuries noted above, the injury to Seiya Suzuki has interrupted his first MLB season. Here’s hoping Suzuki comes back soon and produces the way the Cubs hoped when they signed him, and they did spend some money on him and Stroman, and both are out of action right now. At this point, might as well bring Caleb Kilian back to the major leagues and give him 20 starts the rest of the year and see how he does. What’s the point of more retreads? What’s the point of having Andrelton Simmons and Jonathan Villar on this roster? I’m not going to deal with the Jason Heyward question in detail here as I already covered that here last month, but it might be time to let him go.
This is a plea, then, not only to sign Willson Contreras to an extension but to plan on spending big this offseason. It doesn’t even have to be the “stupid money” that Mets owner Steve Cohen has spent — and Cohen has gotten results — but stop making us think you’re spending enough to put a contending team on the field now, or in 2023. It’s not happening in 2022, but it needs to start happening next year, or this Cubs fanbase, so carefully cultivated for decades with the best ballpark in baseball and a national cable TV audience, might very well begin to disperse.
SHOULD the Cubs trade Willson Contreras?
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WILL the Cubs trade Willson Contreras?
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