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Cubs should watch their fingers as championship window threatens to close fast

The luster has worn off the World Series trophy and all the shiny expectations and benefits of the doubt that came with it in just the three short seasons it took since then for the Cubs to reach this place of reckoning.

Chicago Cubs Introduce David Ross - News Conference
Team president Theo Epstein introducing David Ross as Cubs’ new manager in October.
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

As if losing a grievance hearing and spending the winter on the trading block weren’t indignities enough for Kris Bryant, now some nerds at MLB Network calling themselves “The Shredder” say the recent MVP is no longer a top-10 player among third basemen.

The Mets’ Jeff McNeil is fifth on the position list? What in the name of Edgardo Alfonzo is this?

The system purports to use the most recent two-year window for evaluating. Both were All-Stars with .900-plus OPS production last season.

Albeit, Bryant’s numbers in 2018 were hurt by a shoulder injury. McNeil? He played only 63 games in 2018, with exactly one game started at third.

So maybe this is how it’s going to be for the Cubs, a new normal for the once-celebrated core that broke the 108-year-old curse in 2016.

Now it looks like the last piece of the confetti has finally hit the ground, the last “Shredder” of high expectations — if not respect — gone with the most successful manager in franchise history and half the bullpen.

It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. Last spring, it was the PECOTA propeller heads downgrading the Cubs dramatically from contender to a team that would struggle to win 80 games and miss the playoffs.

Turns out sometimes the nerds get it right.

And that’s where new manager David Ross — who finished his playing career as one of the heroes of that 2016 championship team — and the rest of the Cubs find themselves as pitchers and catchers report to what might be the most uncertain, underwhelming, under-hyped spring training since team president Theo Epstein took over eight years ago.

Championship window? What championship window?

After a second consecutive winter of budget-strapped decision-making and discount-minded acquisitions, it will be all this year’s club can do to keep the window from slamming on their fingers — even if Bryant and other players with trade value remain on the roster in April.

What’s clear is that the luster has worn off that championship trophy and all the shiny expectations and benefits of the doubt that came with it in just the three short seasons it took for the Cubs to reach this place of reckoning on Epstein’s watch.

Epstein said during the Cubs Convention last month that the current collective-bargaining agreement — which went into effect in 2017 — offered plenty of warnings that this day could come for the Cubs and any number of other teams that built success through young cores.

“If you look across the game, the teams that won the World Series early in the CBA that have players who have moved through the arbitration process and are making a lot of money in arbitration added free agents along the way and won World Series in doing so — us, the Red Sox and Astros,” he said. “There’s a pattern here, which was somewhat anticipated.”

He’s talking about the luxury-tax thresholds, which did not rise much with the new CBA, and even within that has mere $2 million increases built into three of the four subsequent years of the five-year deal — including going from $206 million in 2019 to $208 million this year and $210 million in 2021.

That’s less than 1 percent each year — an increase easily eclipsed in player-benefit increases that count against the tax threshold. And penalties increase for each successive year over the threshold.

“Once the CBA was announced, it was clear that for big-market teams [that can best afford increases], as you move deeper into the CBA, unless you got an opportunity to reset along the way, with maybe a year where you weren’t competitive, at the trade deadline or something, it was going to be tough to squeeze additional talent on the roster,” Epstein said.

It made the Cubs’ free-agent misses far more impactful than they might have been and made their inability to develop any big-league pitching the last eight years devastating to that financial picture.

Now, Epstein and other team officials talk about looking at the longer horizon than necessarily an all-in, win-now focus.

Talk about window pains.