The Cubs are No Worse on Paper than that 2016 team, so What’s Changed?
With largely the same roster as the 2016 World Series team, it’s frustrating to watch the Cubs consistently underachieve relative to their talent level.
After this weekend’s sweep by the Nationals at Wrigley Field, the Cubs are 3.0 games back from the Cardinals with only 32 games left in the season. Not only are they in danger of not winning the NL Central for the second consecutive season, but there’s also a decent chance they miss the postseason entirely. To cool myself off from this realization, I pulled up some highlights of the 2016 World Series and couldn’t help but come across the starting lineup in game seven, as shown below:
Looks familiar, right? That’s because it is. Of the ten players shown (including the starting pitcher, Kyle Hendricks), eight of them are still on the 2019 Cubs. And if you include Ben Zobrist, who is in the midst of his comeback to the majors and is expected to be on the Cubs roster in early September, that makes nine of ten. What I thought would cool me off actually angered me even more. The Cubs could field almost the exact same lineup in tonight’s game, yet they aren’t even remotely in the same league as that 2016 team. What happened to this core of mid-20-year-olds that was supposed to be the next MLB dynasty? It’s a tough question to answer, but the only certainty we do know is the Cubs have regressed in practically every facet of the game since that championship season. After a 25-14 start, the Cubs are 44 – 47 in their last 91 games and cannot establish any ounce of consistent play on the diamond. Given the talent on the roster, it’s baffling how much this team has underperformed this year.
Some fans might say I’m overreacting because the Cubs won the World Series only three seasons ago, but how long will fans continue to rationalize the Cubs’ underachievement with that lone World Series ring? It has nothing to do with this team this year. I can guarantee you that championship has not been brought up once in front office meetings since the 2017 season started. Theo and Jed did not construct this team with the goal of winning one World Series. They have constantly preached sustained success, and going two straight years of not winning the division is moving the complete opposite direction of that goal.
Now, I understand there are three players: Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist, and Addison Russell, who are either not on the team right now or simply not the same player they once were. However, can’t you flip that same argument for Javier Baez, Jason Heyward, and Willson Contreras? Baez had a below league average OPS in 2016 and struck out at will. Now, he is the face of the Cubs, and although he has struggled recently, is viewed as one of the best players in the National League after that second-place finish in NL MVP voting last season. Heyward was one of the worst hitters in all of baseball in 2016. Now, he’s having his best offensive season by far as a Cub and has been a centerpiece of the offense all season. Lastly, Contreras was in his rookie season in 2016 and has since started in two consecutive All-Star games. I understand Kyle Schwarber was a better hitter statistically in 2016 than this season, but the Cubs also did not have Nicholas Castellanos in 2016, arguably the best hitter on the Cubs right now. The offensive lineup is by no means worse and is probably even better than that 2016 team on paper.
To move onto pitching, according to baseball-reference, in 2016 the Cubs led the NL in both starting pitching and relief pitching runs allowed per game. In 2019, the Cubs are fourth in the NL in both categories, which isn’t a huge dropoff. I know that may be hard to believe given the amount of blown saves the Cubs have in 2019, but those are the facts.
What I’m getting at is that the Cubs are no worse on paper in 2019 than in 2016, yet the results are considerably worse. Ever since the All-Star break of last season, something has changed internally that has hindered the Cubs from reaching their highest potential. It could be in-house turmoil, complacency, or the need for a new manager. I don’t know. But this team consistently plays flat and it seems like nothing can be done to wake the players up. On top of that, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Tom Ricketts have done everything in their power each season to alleviate the roster’s weaknesses, which is evident by the Cubs having the second-highest payroll in baseball this season. I understand they have made some mistakes, namely Tyler Chatwood and Brandon Morrow, yet they have made five times the number of great moves. They acquired Craig Kimbrel, Tony Kemp, and Castellanos all in the middle of the season to erase roster weaknesses. But to no avail, the Cubs still consistently underperform relative to their talent level. The fact of the matter is that almost every player on the Cubs has either remained static or regressed in their mid-20’s. That should not happen. I don’t know if it’s on the players or the organization’s inability to develop young talent, but either way, it’s inexcusable.
Listen, the Cubs could easily win the division and make a run in the playoffs, and this article could look comical in a month or so. On the other hand, there’s also a chance the Cubs miss the playoffs entirely. If that happens, there is a good chance this roster looks very different in 2020. Yes, that means potentially parting ways with beloved names such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Willson Contreras. And even if the roster looks the same, change will come in the form of a new manager. The point is that fielding the exact same clubhouse for another season would absolutely not be an option. The writing has been on the wall since last season’s All-Star break that a change of environment has been needed. We’re not far off from seeing that change come to fruition.
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