For much of the year, it seemed like the Cubs' worst-case scenario was having to play in the Wild Card Game again. Instead, thanks in large part to a season-derailing eight-game losing streak, they have been officially eliminated from the playoffs with four games to go.
I don't think it's accurate to say this is the end of the best stretch in Cubs history. There's enough core players left to win the World Series next year with some changes.
In some ways, one could argue that a lot conspired against the Cubs. Javier Baez has a broken thumb. Anthony Rizzo has been playing on one leg. Kris Bryant has been banged up for a lot of the year. Craig Kimbrel has never really been right this year. Willson Contreras missed a good chunk of time with injury. Excluding the rotation, these are the five most important players the Cubs have.
Then there was stuff like Pedro Strop hitting his decline, Carl Edwards completely melting down, Ben Zobrist leaving the team to deal with personal matters, Addison Russell's domestic violence suspension and terrible return, Albert Almora's wretched season and Daniel Descalso being one of the worst position players in the majors.
It wasn't all bad. They're going to end with a winning record. But after the 2016 World Series, things were supposed to be a lot better. The way things stand, it seems like a drastic move is needed to shake things up. Let's talk drastic. Here are six ideas. I don't necessarily believe any of these need to happen, I'm just throwing out ideas that might work. Let's go in with an open mind, shall we?
1. Sign Castellanos; trade Schwarber
Given their lack of range and the fact that the Cubs are stuck with Jason Heyward -- who is better suited in right field than center -- keeping both Nicholas Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber doesn't seem like the smart play. That means they have to pick one. Signing Castellanos costs them only money and it's possible he wants to be a Cub for life after the trade from Detroit breathed new life into his game. At the very least, I'll guess he goes to Scott Boras and says to only talk to contenders. Schwarber doesn't have the trade value he once had, but he's hit .302/.392/.657 with 12 doubles, two triples and 15 homers in his last 53 games. He really seems to have come into his own. Dealing him while putting Castellanos in left field could land the Cubs one or two usable pieces and my hunch is the money isn't much different on Castellanos in free agency vs. Schwarber in arbitration.
2. Walk away from Joe Maddon
I've expanded on this point before (I surely didn't realize they wouldn't win another game before I was writing this piece, though), so. Basically, I think Maddon is the best manager the Cubs have ever had but this group is stale and he's part of it. A new voice can sometimes shake things up. His deal is up, so it's not like they'd be firing him.
3. Trade Bryant; sign Rendon
Hey, I said something drastic, right?
Bryant's WAR by year: 6.1, 7.4, 6.1, 1.9, 3.5. He only played in 102 games last year. He's played in 147 this year, but he's been playing hurt a lot. He has two years left in arbitration and he's gonna make a fortune based on his track record that includes an MVP.
Let's look at something here. As noted, I said something drastic needs to be done to shake things up.
Bryant: .282/.382/.521, 145 K
Rendon: .322/.410/.603, 82 K
Rendon is hitting for far more average and power than Bryant while being a good contact hitter. He would bring a lot more consistency to the lineup than Bryant, who has been hot-and-cold a lot this season. The Cubs offense as a whole has lacked consistency, so having a more dependable anchor would help matters.
Whether or not this could actually be pulled off is another matter. We have seen the Cubs line things up before with trading Starlin Castro and signing Ben Zobrist at the 2015 Winter Meetings, but this is a much bigger proposition. I'm simply saying this could/should be a discussion point.
4. Trade Contreras; sign Grandal
Willson Contreras is a stud who won't get to free agency until after 2022. Surely he'd fetch a nice package in return and -- much like the thinking goes with the Bryant/Rendon thing above -- the Cubs' upper levels of prospects could use some refreshing.
While Contreras has improved his framing to 4.6 runs above average, Yasmani Grandal is top five in baseball at 14.4. Contreras is a better all-around hitter, but Grandal has him in on-base percentage by 25 points. Also, Contreras might be injury prone. He's had hamstring issues repeatedly and has only managed 103 games played this season with two separate IL stints.
Getting something back for Contreras while signing the free agent Grandal is probably more realistic than the above Bryant/Rendon thing, but it's in the same spirit of shaking things up while plugging in a fresh stud and revamping the farm system.
5. Sign Gerrit Cole
Ready for another bidding war? The Cubs have money coming off the books this year and in the next several years, so surely they have the financial flexibility to go after Cole. Cole Hamels is gone via free agency, so there's a natural opening in the rotation and it's one that could use a surefire ace above Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Jon Lester.
This isn't exactly a drastic idea, but after hearing Tom Ricketts talk about how they can't spend anything last winter, it might sound as much.
6. Fire Theo Epstein
Look, Theo's status in Wrigleyville should forever be just short of a God. Exalted! While I might have said otherwise just to maintain my sanity as a fan, looking back I realize I thought I would never see the Cubs win it all. They did. Theo was the architect. Millions of us will forever be grateful and smile every time we see him.
If I'm his boss and the job evaluation is ongoing, however, he hasn't exactly been good since that title. Even before the title, really. He elected to sign Jason Heyward over Dexter Fowler and Fowler's market collapsing helped lead to the 2016 title. Remember, he showed up at spring training unexpected after signing a surprise one-year deal. If that didn't happen, they probably don't win it all. I wouldn't change anything before the 2016 World Series because you don't mess with that, but Epstein likely overpaid for Aroldis Chapman (again, you can argue to do anything possible to win it all, but it was a lot). After that, he likely overpaid for Jose Quintana and then Yu Darvish.
The Hamels and Castellanos moves were good, but I'm not seeing much more going back even before the World Series title.
The farm system is a mess at this point and you could say that this is because of so much young talent being in the majors, but did first-round picks on Almora and Ian Happ really overwhelm? Meantime, this is probably the worst organization in baseball at developing its own pitching. Again, one might say something like "well, they choose to go big bats in the draft," but I'd counter with Almora and Happ not being very good. They haven't even been good at developing bats after the first-round draft picks, which are really just Bryant (a can't miss), Schwarber, Baez (who wasn't even an Epstein draft pick) and Nico Hoerner (and we can't be sure he'll pan out).
Epstein made a ton of great moves through 2015. Again, we're all forever grateful. This is also a business and I believe the Ricketts family -- who, by the way, is complicit in this mess for not allowing more spending in light of the biggest windfall in franchise history -- should have a real discussion here.
Now, a new hire would immediately have a lot of big decisions to make. See above. Plus, it's not out of the question that Yu Darvish opts out of his deal at this point because he's been an absolute stud in the second half. Anthony Rizzo ($16.5M) and Jose Quintana ($11.5M) have affordable club options that should be picked up, but you never know. It's time for a shakeup.
This is still the Golden Era of Cubs baseball, but something drastic needs to be done to extend that window. Let's see if they have the guts and, more importantly, know how to do it.