The 2020 Chicago Cubs are your classic example of a team relying on a proven core in its prime to spark a bounce-back season. The likelihood of that desired outcome? Faint, and it’s because the Cubs are in competitive stagnation.
This isn’t a bad team. They have some of the best players at their respective positions in Major League Baseball and a core that won the World Series four years ago.
Their offense features the likes of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras. Those individuals are accompanied by Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and Albert Almora. They were all part of a Cubs offense that finished 2019 sixth in MLB in home runs (256), eighth in on-base percentage (.331), ninth in slugging (.452), and 10th in runs (814). Close to nothing to complain about.
It’s a different story on the hill.
Kyle Hendricks is one of the best off-speed pitchers in the sport, and Yu Darvish showed signs of life late last season, recording a 2.76 ERA and holding opponents to a .199 batting average across his last 13 starts. Outside of the two right-handers, uncertainty reeks through Chicago’s starting rotation.
Jon Lester, 36, is coming off a tough season, recording a 4.46 ERA and 1.50 WHIP; Jose Quintana hasn’t performed up to expectations, posting a 4.23 ERA over his two and a half seasons with the Cubs; Cole Hamels signed with the Atlanta Braves in the offseason; Tyler Chatwood is difficult to get a gauge on.
Last June, Cubs President Theo Epstein thought he was getting the premier closer his ballclub needed when he signed Craig Kimbrel; it didn’t go so well. Kimbrel struggled mightily in the ninth inning, and the bullpen, as a whole, wasn’t able to aid a rotation that fell off a cliff down the stretch.
The Cubs finished in third place in the National League Central last season, 84-78, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2014. They’ll be adjusting to a new face in the dugout next season: David Ross. The former Cubs catcher was hired to replace Joe Maddon as the team’s skipper.
The impact of this managerial swap? No one knows, because it’s a first-year manager, and he’s working with a roster that has piqued. That’s no fault of anyone on the active roster; the Cubs have one of the best depth charts in the sport. At the same time, this isn’t a team that’s a mere piece away from contending, which is mostly due to their divisional foes.
The St. Louis Cardinals have won 88-plus games in each of the last two seasons. They have one of the sport’s best starting rotations, a healthy mix of youth and proven commodities in their lineup, and a reliable bullpen.
The Milwaukee Brewers have made the NL playoffs in each of the last two seasons and are a versatile roster of savvy hitters and deceptive pitchers. They’ll be getting the 2018 NL Most Valuable Player, Christian Yelich, back on the field this season. That should help.
The Cincinnati Reds are the dark horse in the division. They have a killer top of the rotation, a compelling lineup, and a deep bullpen of hard-throwing arms. Meanwhile, they signed Mike Moustakas, Nicholas Castellanos, and Wade Miley in the offseason.
You could argue that the Cubs are the fourth-best team in the NL Central on paper, third-best based on pedigree. Concurrently, the NL East has four Wild Card-caliber teams, and the Arizona Diamondbacks are a budding force. Winning the division, let alone making the playoffs will be a tall order for the Cubs.
So, should the Cubs make a trade? MLB Pipeline ranks the Cubs’ farm system 23rd in MLB, and the mere fact that they listened to trade offers for Kris Bryant, a free agent after 2021, in the offseason shows that they’re entertaining the prospect of retooling their farm system and/or cutting payroll in a drastic way.
It’s important to keep in mind that the Cubs are so far down the list because their former super prospects are wreaking havoc at the big-league level. The New York Yankees are 22nd on the list and set to sport their sharpest team from top to bottom since their 2009 World Series championship; their former super prospects are now the driving force of the organization.
The other option for the Cubs is to sell.
The Cubs put an unreasonable asking price on Bryant in the offseason, supposedly asking for promising young players such as Victor Robles of the Washington Nationals. A former MLB general manager called the Cubs’ asking price “a joke.”
They were remarkably silent on the free agent market and are no better than they were at the conclusion of the 2019 regular season. The market for a Bryant trade will only worsen with time, and there’s close to no reason to trade Baez, Rizzo, and Contreras. The Cubs would get worse in the short term with minimal benefit in such a transaction.
It’s difficult for a franchise that’s held in high esteem with a high payroll like the Cubs to just stop on a dime and embark on a selling spree. Every move they make has to come with an abundance of forethought from a financial, baseball, and marketing standpoint.
Full season, shortened season, or MLB The Show season, what’re the Cubs’ chances at coming out ahead of the pack of wolves they’re running with in the NL this season? How about 2021?
The Cubs are good enough to stay afloat; they’re not good enough to contend, but they also have few, if any players who make since to part with for the sake of corralling top-tier prospects. It’s a perplexing state.