Two years after World Series title, does anyone know where the Cubs are going?
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These are strange times for the Cubs. They’re coming off a 95-victory season, their fourth consecutive year of at least 92 victories. No team has had as much success in that span.
And, yet, everything feels unsettled.
Two seasons ago, the Cubs won the World Series, and the talk was of a dynasty in the making. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo led a young core. There was talent everywhere and a window big enough for multiple titles.
Now team president Theo Epstein isn’t positive which direction his operation is going. He’s talking about the possibility of major change if the Cubs don’t start doing what dynasties are supposed to do.
Weren’t we just in Cleveland, and wasn’t that Rizzo raising his arms in celebration after catching the last out in Game 7 of the World Series? Wasn’t the parade, like, yesterday?
Strange times, man.
“I think we’re really talented,” Epstein told reporters before the annual general managers meetings this week. “And I think that for the group as a whole and for a lot of individual players, it’s now time to turn that talent into production. And in a lot of ways, we’re going to be as good as our core of talent produces.
“It’s time to produce, or else there’s a chance for significant change for the group.’’
What that “or else’’ means depends on your level of paranoia.
Would the Cubs consider going through another rebuild? What would you call that, a re-rebuild?
Preposterous. The mere idea is a nightmare, a fever dream. No fan should have to even think about being recaptured and re-tortured. The years of determined losing were painful, yet the Cubs’ faithful continued to step right up to the ticket window. So let’s not even consider the idea of another tank job. OK, let’s consider it later in the column, when your resistance will be low.
It’s not just a strange time. It’s a scary time. If Epstein doesn’t know where this is going, how are all the people who think he decides when the sun rises and falls supposed to know? I picture a massive group of analytics groupies with laptops and eyestrain walking into Lake Michigan until air bubbles are all that is left.
Epstein is going to let Joe Maddon serve out the last year of his contract, and if he likes what he sees from his manager, he might re-sign him. Or he might not. If that doesn’t speak to the fragility of this situation, nothing does.
“Nothing is granted or bestowed in baseball,” Epstein said. “The time you have with a special group can go pretty fast, and you want to make the most of every opportunity that you have to win.
“Teams don’t stay together forever. It’s certainly time. It’s certainly a pivotal season for us as an organization for this group to go out there and accomplish some special things.”
Let’s review. The Cubs appear to be maxed out on their payroll, meaning, in all likelihood, that they won’t be in the running for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. At some point, Jon Lester, their best pitcher, is going to run out of gas. He’ll be 35 when Opening Day rolls around. The Cubs haven’t created talented young pitching. And Maddon, the manager who did what no one else had been able to do for more than a century, is on hold while Epstein sees if a $6 million salary for a skipper makes sense.
The team has Bryant, Rizzo and Javy Baez, three players any team would love to have. The questions begin after that. Do you think Ben Zobrist, 37, will again hit .305, as he did last season? Will Willson Contreras bounce back next season? The Cubs can’t keep Addison Russell and his off-field issues, can they? Would you put your trust in Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber? Did we really just celebrate Jason Heyward hitting .270 and eight home runs in 2018?
But . . . the Cubs had 95 victories, a huge success by any standard. So why does this feel so unsettled? Because it is, and because Epstein said it is. Or maybe he’s trying to light a fire under his underachievers.
“The time for that talent to translate into performance is now . . . or else we’re going to be looking at some hard realities and the need for a lot of change going forward,” he said.
“A lot of change’’ gives me an uneasy feeling. The “r’’ word — rebuild — starts to pop into my brain. They wouldn’t. They can’t. The Red Sox, who are the Cubs’ inspiration for just about everything, don’t do things like that. They make major changes, and they expect to keep winning. That’s how the Cubs will proceed.
Here’s what we know for sure. They won a World Series title in 2016, fell in the National League Championship Series in 2017 and lost in a wild-card game in 2018. There’s a trajectory there, the downward kind.
Where is this going to lead? Not even Epstein knows. Strange. And scary.