Perhaps earlier than some expected, the Cubs 2020 season ended on Friday the way it was always going to end: In offensive futility. We'll get to that in a second.
This time around, it means the end of the run, by and large, for the remaining core of the 2016 World Series championship team.
Sure, some of the key parts were already gone, in guys like Jake Arrieta, Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist. Sure, some are 100 percent going to remain on the team moving forward, such as Kyle Hendricks and Jason Heyward.
Much of the rest of the group that comes to mind when thinking of the team that broke the longest and most notorious championship drought in professional sports history are totally up in the air heading to the 2021 season. And they are about to be anywhere from slightly dismantled to totally blown up.
First, let's examine why.
Club president Theo Epstein had the backing of ownership to spend pretty liberally leading up to the 2015-17 seasons and even went big for Yu Darvish before the start of the 2018 season. Since then, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts hasn't been shy in talking publicly about how there just isn't money in free agency to spend. Things got worse with the pandemic closing down Wrigley Field from fans, which generally provides millions and millions of dollars for the ownership in gate revenue, parking, concessions and merchandise. It was enough that Ricketts -- with a true lack of self-awareness against the hardships of what plenty of unemployed people are going through compared to a billionaire family -- used the word "biblical" to describe the "losses" the Cubs are set to suffer in 2020.
It doesn't take an accountant to see the writing on the wall here. Epstein, Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs brass are going to have strict payroll orders to follow this coming offseason.
It's just not working. We've gotten past the point of looking at the names involved -- we'll get to that -- and expecting some sort of magic wand to be waved and different results to be produced.
Going back to the start of the 2017 NLCS and including the 2018 "play-in" game 163, those last nine post-162 games have seen the Cubs score 11 times in nine games. They were shutout on Friday. They scored exactly one run six times. But small sample size against good pitchers in the playoffs, right?
Eh, sure. Some of it is that. Some of it is an offense that just isn't very good and has been getting progressively worse. Here is the progression downward, starting with the 2016 World Series title.
2016: .256/.343/.429; 2nd in NL in OPS
2017: .255/.338/.437; 3rd
2018: .258/.333/.410; 5th
2019: .252/.331/.452; 4th
2020: .220/.318/.387; 10th
Note that there was a jump in the slugging in 2019, but the league-wide slugging jumped 26 points. Power is incredibly important, but the team isn't very well-rounded. Complicating matters with the offense is the propensity to strike out at a huge rate (only two NL teams in 2020 struck out more often) and there is no real high-average, high-contact guy to try and balance the lineup -- such as D.J. LeMahieu with the Yankees.
The drop in 2020 was obviously more drastic than previous years, but it's pretty alarming given the state of the roster, especially against the backdrop of the financial situation being fed to Epstein.
Here's a look at everyone left from 2016 and the situations with each moving forward.
- Jason Heyward is coming off his best season as a Cub by far and was productive. With three years and $65 million left, he's also still un-tradeable unless it's a total salary dump.
- Kyle Hendricks has three years and $42 million with a vesting option for 2024 remaining. He's excellent and there's every reason to believe he's back.
- Jon Lester has a $25 million option for 2021 that will certainly not be picked up. He has thrown his final pitch as a Cub, in all likelihood. We'll avoid a ton of sentiment here while also pointing out he's the single best free agent signing in Cubs history.
- Anthony Rizzo has a club option for $16.5 million for next season. Surely they can't let him go, right? But what if they have to in order to appease the Ricketts-mandated bottom line, due to not being able to shed other players?
- Kris Bryant only has one year left before free agency. His arbitration figure is likely to be north of $20 million next year. He's coming off a terrible season at the plate where he was banged up multiple times. How much will teams be willing to pay in prospects for one year of him in 2021? The Cubs surely will try to trade him, but will there even be any takers willing to give prospects of value with 2021 being such an unknown?
- Javier Baez was utterly miserable at the plate this season. He also has only one year left before hitting free agency. What's the path forward here? The two sides have been said open to an extension, but what would that even look like at this point?
- Add Kyle Schwarber to the list here who hits free agency after next year. His career year at the plate was probably 2019. He took a giant step back in 2020. I'd be more concerned about the Cubs non-tendering him (tantamount to a "release") than a trade.
- Willson Contreras has two years left before free agency. His arbitration figure this season was $4.5 million and that means he's not going to hit eight figures next year. Given the leap in his framing game this year, he's made himself into one of the most valuable catchers in baseball. If there's one guy who will have big trade value this coming offseason, this is the ticket. The Cubs could look at the value vs. salary and keep him, sure, but my hunch is he's dealt.
- Pedro Strop was brought back after the Reds released him, but he never escaped the alternate site and is probably facing retirement. He had such a great Cubs run and deserved mention, though.
- Albert Almora scored the go-ahead run in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. He had some stretches of hitting well, mostly only for average, and made some highlight-reel plays in center for a few years. As things stand, he had a 67 OPS+ last season and was an atrocious hitter in 2020 before the Cubs sent him to the alternate site. He's not fast and doesn't even profile as an above-average center fielder. My hunch is he's non-tendered. He could sure use a change of scenery, as could the Cubs.
As noted, we know Heyward and Hendricks will be back, though I supposed it's possible Epstein decides to deal Hendricks as one of his best value vs. salary guys. From there, I'll guess Bryant and Baez are back while they attempt to decline Rizzo's option and bring him back for multiple years on a lower average annual value salary. That's it. Say goodbye to Lester, Schwarber, Contreras, Strop and Almora. I also wouldn't be surprised if Bryant and Rizzo are also out. Aside from Hendricks and Heyward, only Baez being gone from the list above would truly surprise me.
It's a subject for a different time -- probably once we've heard a lot more from the front office before free agency starts -- but the path forward likely doesn't include an extreme rebuild like when Epstein took over. He has enough productive holdovers to avoid that route. Instead, I'd expect the Cubs to try and reshape the roster with new additions around pitchers like Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay in addition to a position-playing core of Heyward, Ian Happ, David Bote, Nico Hoerner, Victor Caratini and anyone from the group of Rizzo/Bryant/Baez/Schwarber/Contreras -- in addition to doing the normal filling out of the bullpen.
The most likely outcome from the coming offseason is a team that isn't terrible but isn't likely to be a bona fide contender right away. Again, though, that's a conversation for a different time.
For now, we can finally put to bed the thoughts of the Cubs' 2016 core winning more than one World Series. They did the unthinkable and won one. They are rockstars forever in Chicago. No one can ever take 2016 away from them or the fans who will love them forever. The loss Friday afternoon in Wrigley Field solidified, however, that they've largely been a relative disappointment since and there's no reason to expect running things back again in 2021 would end in a different result.
It is, with the 2016 Cubs core, the end of the road.