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Cub Fans- Don’t be angry that the front office traded away the core of your team. Be furious that they left themselves no other choice.

August 2, 2021

Fans of the Chicago Cubs spent the better part of this weekend sifting through a wide range of emotions after the team’s front office followed up on its plan to commence the demolition of the greatest dynasty that never was. After a span from 2015-2020 that included six consecutive winning seasons, five trips to the playoffs, three division titles, three trips to the NCLS and of course, one World Series Championship, Jed Hoyer and crew finally waived the white flag and said goodbye the main pieces of the core responsible for those accomplishments. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and especially Anthony Rizzo were all fan favorites, and were much larger than just ballplayers to the Chicago community.

It is easy to be sentimental in regard to those three players in particular and their contribution to what will forever be regarded as the golden era in Chicago Cubs baseball. However, the sad reality in both sports and in life is that sound decision-making simply must always depend upon logic above feelings. Fans upset about the fire sale that unfolded Friday, which sent their three favorite players to new destinations in exchange for 19-year old prospects they have never heard of and will likely be forced to wait years to see in uniform in a best case scenario, are likely clinging to the successes of 2015-2017 without recognizing or admitting the frustrations of the more recent 2018-2020 seasons. As a fan myself who readily admits that the front office made the correct decision from a logistical standpoint, it’s been admittedly difficult to properly pinpoint where my anger lies. I’ve concluded that fans shouldn’t be mad at the front office for unloading these players so unceremoniously at this point in time. They should instead be furious that the Ricketts family, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer et al. ever put the franchise in such a situation in the first place.  

Before diving into the vast chasm to describe what led to this soul-crushing collapse, I’d like to provide a quick refresh for the more casual fan as to why the Cubs had no choice but to ship out the core of their team on Friday. Basically speaking, whether it was a failure to come to terms or the lack of desire to do so, the inability of the Cubs to reach long-term deals with Bryant, Baez and Rizzo was always going to lead to this moment if the team was out of contention at the trade deadline. There are varying and conflicting anecdotes in regard to what kind of offers were ever made to those three, but as soon as the season began without any of the three of them under contract beyond this season, all signs pointed to the strong possibility of trading them. (Bryant for one has been the subject of trade rumors for years, but there’s more on that below). That’s because the dog days of summer baseball games essentially take on an exhibition role for teams that are out of contention. The Cubs weren’t going to win the NL Central this season anyway, so regardless of whether they finished second, third, fourth or fifth, there was absolutely no point in hanging on to players that are not under contract and allowing whatever trade value their two month “rental” option provides to expire worthless.

However, while it’s true that all three players are free agents and could be re-signed and brought back in the offseason, that event becomes far less likely now that an unabashed, full-blown rebuild has been communicated to the entire league. That is why the failure to extend even one of the three players hurts so badly, assuming that was even something that the Cubs organization wanted to do in the first place. Do you really see a player with the upside of Baez coming back to a situation like this now? To put it more bluntly, as soon as Theo Epstein stepped down and Jed Hoyer decided to execute a salary dump by trading Cy Young runner up Yu Darvish for pennies on the dollar before the season started in a curiously timed move, even the most casual of casual fans had to have seen the writing on the wall. At that point, the front office was clearly not “all in” on competing this season. Giving up on Kyle Schwarber to save $8MM right before the lefty slugger embarked on a career best season also gave some indication of that mentality, but there’s more on that below as well.

When the Cubs surged into first place after a red-hot May, Hoyer and crew had to be in panic mode. For spoiled Cubs fans who have suddenly been accustomed to winning regularly, “Imagine where this team would be if they had Darvish?” became their incredulous battle cry. Having the team in strong contention to win the division in late July would have been a worst-case scenario for management, who wouldn’t have been able to justify dumping the entire team in the middle of a playoff race, but who had been pointing to do exactly that since the winter with their devious, traitorous schemes. The 11-game losing streak that followed in June couldn’t have been timed more perfectly for the front office’s ambitions, as falling 9 games out of the race for the division lead put the plan back in motion just in time. What I am describing here is the front office, the team and the fan base of one of the richest sports franchises in the world all in active opposition to one another, which needless to say creates a huge conflict of interest. The potentially immeasurable fallout from this is yet to be determined, especially as the “New Wrigleyville” experience created by the Ricketts ownership era becomes ever more expensive for the average working family, conveniently paired with increasingly diminishing returns.

This all circles back to the main reason that Cubs fans should be furious right now, which is that there simply has been no coherent continuity in terms of thought and execution by this front office. There has been no transparency. There has been no plan and is there currently is no plan. While most fans understand that baseball is a business and that they shouldn’t feel obligated to receive an explanation from the people who bought the team with their own massive fortunes, or the people they have hired to run it, there’s still an argument to be made that at the end of the day, the fans pay the bills and at the very least are entitled to a group of leaders who don’t behave as though they have forgotten to take their lithium for several years running. For example, if the plan all along was to give up on this season as the decision to dump Darvish and Schwarber seemed to indicate before it started, then why weren’t Bryant, Baez and Rizzo traded after last season, when their value would have been much higher? What exactly did the front office see that the rest of us did not as the Cubs came off a division title in 2020, albeit after a Covid shortened season? Fans have every right to wonder about these things, and about what could have been.

So, how did we get to this sad moment in time? Buckle up for this wild ride of incompetence, greed and apathy. As I will try to demonstrate, it was not so much about the moves themselves, but rather the Jekyll and Hide nature of these decisions combined with a complete lack of consistent philosophy in regard to winning that ultimately spelled doom for the Cubs. The result, a full-blown rebuild coming when it never should have, has been brewing for many years now.

Bad Contracts: Jason Heyward, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow

Jason Heyward is by all-accounts an incredible human being, a great teammate, and has always carried himself impressively well in both word and action. He has provided consistent gold glove defense in right field throughout his time in Chicago. However, the sad truth of the matter is that his bat simply hasn’t come anywhere close to living up to the 8-year, $184 million contract he signed heading into the 2016 season. In fact, if we ignore the small sample size of the shortened 2020 season, his OPS + numbers over his time in Chicago look like this: 68, 84, 94, 101, 62. For those less statistically inclined, OPS+ takes on-base percentage, adds it to slugging percentage and then normalizes the league average to 100. This gives an indication of how far below the league average Heyward has been over the course of his contract in terms of this metric, widely regarded as the single most important measurement of a hitter’s quality. There is simply no denying that his contract has become an albatross for the organization, apparently preventing it from being able to sign other free agents or to look at serious, competitive extensions for the recently departed three. Bad contracts happen all the time, and this won’t be the last one for the Chicago Cubs or any other MLB organization. But as time wore on and the realization of this mess of a contract became more apparent, the front office began to use it as an excuse. That’s what makes the signings of players like Tyler Chatwood (3 years, $38MM, couldn’t find the strike zone for the first two years) and Brandon Morrow (2 years, $21 million, injured his back putting on his pants and could not stay healthy) seem so puzzling in retrospect. Why was the organization able to go out on such a massive limb to attract those players, while seemingly reluctant to extend its own home-grown talent?

The Kris Bryant Debacle

Despite struggling with injuries over the last three seasons, when healthy, Kris Bryant is still one of the most fearsome hitters in all of baseball, and his ability to effectively maneuver so many positions in the field is a manager’s dream. Coming into the 2015 season, Bryant was the AAA player of the year and the most highly anticipated and highly touted prospect in the history of the franchise. While clearly ready to be an opening day starter, the Cubs chose to exploit a rule relating to service time, keeping him down in the minors long enough so that his first season as a Cub would not count towards the total years of team control that the organization could exert. While this makes perfect sense on its surface (why not keep the player for an extra year if all you have to do is hold him down in the minors a few extra weeks in April?) it became a sticking point and a sore spot in the side of Bryant and his agent Scott Boras from the get go. Eventually, they even issued a formal grievance with MLB, which they of course lost, because rules exist for a reason. But as Bryant’s aggravation in regard to a front office move he and his agent clearly did not appreciate and viewed as petty, things became increasingly worse, especially as trade rumors began to swirl in lock step with Bryant’s decline in production following his 2016 MVP season. Those trade rumors obviously did not materialize until the final minute of the 11th hour, but having this years-long cold war between Bryant and the organization did the team no favors, especially over the more frustrating recent years. And again, a rule is a rule, and it makes perfect sense why a front office would want to use such a rule to retain a generational talent such as Bryant for as long as they possibly could. The logistical fallacy of course is that this 2021 season was the extra year that all of the fuss was about. The Cubs brass essentially alienated a player who perhaps would have been its greatest of all time and who now will be much harder to re-sign as a result, all to gain an extra year of control that they ended up forfeiting away anyway. Let that sink in. The fact that Darvish and Schwarber were both parted with so easily before the season began demonstrates a puzzling lack of understanding of this reality, and above all shows a lack of connection between past and present decision-making processes that is troubling to say the least.

The Jose Quintana Trade

Theo Epstein won a World Series for the Cubs and undeniably did more good than harm to the organization he led based on that simple fact. But his decision to trade for crosstown rival pitcher Jose Quintana in 2017 only a year removed from that feat will always be viewed by many as the moment that the momentum the team was building took a sharp negative turn. By giving up top prospects in outfield slugger Eloy Jimenez and starting pitcher Dylan Cease, Epstein weakened the farm system significantly for the sake of a panicky “win now” mentality while Bryant, Baez and Rizzo all still had four years remaining on their contract. Quintana was a serviceable back end of the rotation starter that added depth, but certainly was never going to be the piece that elevated the starting pitching back to its 2016 form. Three perfectly average seasons from Quintana ended before 2020 even started after a freak household injury, while Jimenez and Cease have the look of superstars who will be playing at a high level on the other side of town for years to come.

The Stubborn Refusal to Permanently Solidify the Bullpen, Epitomized by the Jorge Soler Trade

Considering the eventual decision to pay up for Craig Kimbrel on a four year-contract to slam the door late in close games before trading him as well this past week, there may have been no more lack of consistency in terms of thought as there was in assembling the bullpen, specifically the role of closer. For the 2016 World Series run, the team paid a hefty price in trading its #1 prospect Gleyber Torres to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. Few educated fans would besmirch that move of course, as Chapman’s dominance late in games was likely the difference in the Cubs winning that World Series versus losing it (Game 7 notwithstanding). But the following year, Chapman opted to return to the Yankees in free agency, and the Cubs found themselves without a closer heading into 2017. Citing an overflow of position players (oh what a problem to have!), the team decided to trade the raw but high potential outfielder Jorge Soler to the Royals for closer Wade Davis. The problem with that was that Davis would only be under team control for one year, and the Cubs didn’t opt to resign him either after that season ended in an NCLS loss to the Dodgers. Giving up Soler, who was still under four years of control at the time of the trade, was a massive price to pay for a one year closer, especially after Soler led the American League with 48 home runs in 2019. In the years that followed, the stubborn refusal of the front office to solidify the closer role and instead embark on a “closer by committee” approach that involved a frequently injured Brandon Morrow as well as Pedro Strop, who was crowd favorite but really more cut out for a set-up role, caused a great deal of irritation among the fanbase. After that, a light bulb finally came on upstairs for the decision-makers, who dished out the big bucks for Kimbrel only to watch him struggle mightily with control for his first two seasons. Outside of Kimbrel’s return to form this year which certainly did help his eventual trade value greatly, the role of closer has been an unmitigated disaster since Davis’ solid 2017 season, and the team paid a big price for that disaster.

The Failure to Re-Sign Nick Castellanos

Mid-way through the 2019 season, the Cubs’ main issue was clear. They needed a more professional contact bat in the lineup. Epstein was able to trade for perhaps the best one available on the market that season at the deadline, and Nick Castellanos was a perfect fit at Wrigley, providing an immediate injection of smart offense and electricity into the lineup. The team still missed the playoffs that year, but that was no fault of Castellanos, who seemed like a slam dunk candidate to sign to a long contract as a Cub. For reasons beyond explanation and without excuse, not only did Epstein and company allow him to slip through the cracks for the meager sum of $64MM over four years, they let him fall to a division rival in the Cincinnati Reds. All Castellanos is doing this season is leading the National League with a .329 batting average. Upon his departure, Bryant led the Cubs with a .267 batting average.

Ignoring D.J. LaMahieu in free agency

The fact that the Cubs traded LaMahieu to Rockies in 2011 after drafting him in 2009 pre-dates the gripes about this regime, so we will set that aside for now. Less forgivable though was the fact that while badly needing a second baseman heading into the 2019 season, the team seemingly didn’t even give a look to the best one on the market. LaMahieu had won the NL batting title in 2016, and even after failing to duplicate that performance in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, a quick glance at the sabermetic statistic of your choice would have indicated that he was ready for a breakout season. The Yankees grabbed him for the bargain price of $24MM over two years, and guess what he did? He promptly went out and won another batting title while finishing 3rd in the AL MVP voting. This was not only poor re-evaluation of talent by a team that had been the ones to draft him in the first place, but also an incredibly bad allocation of resources, or lack thereof. It is hard to justify the Chatwood and Morrow deals ever happening in the first place while also arguing that the team didn’t have $12MM a year lying around for a player of LaMahieu’s caliber.

Trading Yu Darvish and letting Kyle Schwarber walk

This, as they say, was the final nail in the coffin, with both moves coming before the 2021 campaign began. Darvish had been signed to a huge contract prior to the 2018 season, with the team shelling out $126MM over six years. He did not pitch to that contract over the course of 2018 and the first half of 2019, as injuries and mental obstacles appeared to stifle his control. However, Darvish began to regain his form after the 2019 All Star Break, and carried that over the shortened 2020 season where he was virtually unhittable, finishing 2nd in the NL in ERA and 2nd in the Cy Young voting. One would think that after striving to make something out of a contract that initially looked like another mistake that the front office would have been glad to have it back on track. After all, $21MM a year for a perennial Cy Young contender is a steal compared to the current market value for such a thing (Gerrit Cole’s record-setting contract earns him $36MM annually, for example). There is an argument to be made that the organization wanted to “sell high” with Darvish before he fell back into another period of mediocrity, but that isn’t what ended up happening at all. Of the four prospects the Cubs received, the best one was a 2nd round draft pick aged 17 at the time. (If you are going to argue that Zach Davies was a piece of the deal too, I am surprised you haven’t stopped reading yet). It was a salary dump, pure and simple, and when the team didn’t pursue a power arm to replace Darvish and anchor the rotation, anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention understood that this signified the reality that the rebuild was about to begin. The decision to let Kyle Schwarber walk for $8MM only to sign Joc Pederson for that same amount should have doubly solidified that reality for any naysayers or optimists in denial. Oh, by the way, Schwarber’s .911 OPS this season would rank first on this Cubs team if only he were still on it. He was also 2nd in the NL in home runs (25) before the Nationals executed a fire sale of their own.  

It would be easy to make an argument about how shipping off three players who have given so much to the team and to the city of Chicago is akin to treating them like cattle, or how dollars and cents and logic have all superseded human decency. After all, these players are people too, often with families and children who are settled and comfortable. Most of us can’t imagine being told to move on a dime to a location chosen entirely by our employer. Of course, professional athletes are compensated well and know exactly what they are getting into when they sign contracts, so I won’t be an attendee to that pity party, although I certainly see the angle and sympathize to an extent with what a ridiculous rat race the trade deadline has become. However, I will instead take a different approach and argue that these three players, after all they have given to this franchise, deserve a chance to play for a team this fall that has its designs set on actually winning rather than wallowing through the dog days of summer while subject to the ineptitude of the re-construction of a fourth-place team in one of baseball’s worst divisions.

Friday night after the fire sale had mercifully concluded, Jed Hoyer referenced a sudden dual flexibility in terms of finances as well as prospects within the farm system, which the organization had been lacking for a while now on both fronts. The team was indeed able to stockpile prospects to bolster the farm system and free up some capital obligations as well, but this newfound flexibility only becomes a positive if the people in charge understand how to leverage it effectively. The team will certainly have money to spend now in the offseason. Whether that means attempting to bring back some combination of Bryant, Baez and Rizzo, going after new players that the organization feels will provide more value going forward, or simply sitting on a pile of cash while waiting for the right time to unleash it remains anybody’s guess. It’s possible that the front office valuations on these players based on their metrics simply doesn’t align with their perceived market value, but of course they won’t say that publicly. When speaking to the press Saturday night after winning his MLB leading 13th game, quite the feat indeed while pitching for a team whose ownership does not currently prioritize winning, veteran Kyle Hendricks said, “It’s unclear really to us exactly where we’re headed. You never know where you’re going to be. But I love Chicago so much, and they’ve given me everything. So obviously I would love to be here, and I would love to be a part of that. But you never know where your place is in those plans.”

And that is really the crux of the issue. Fans suffered through the 2011-2014 seasons because there was optimism on the horizon. There was a distinct and deliberate plan in place, and it was an easy sell that it was going to work even before it did, seemingly years ahead of schedule. After we fans suffer through (or for many, ignore) the next two months of baseball, we will enter an offseason where there is no plan. Kyle Hendricks doesn’t know what it is, you and I don’t know what is, and most terrifying of all, the people running the organization don’t know what it is.