In news that seemed meant to be since the Cubs limped across the finish line this season, David Ross was named the new manager of the Chicago Cubs. Great. What comes next?
Unfortunately for Cubs fans and executives alike, David Ross isn’t the answer to the problem that the Cubs have as they reach their “dynasty” crossroads. How did the Cubs get to this point? They were supposed to be THE team of the second half of the decade. They were going to duke it out every season in the World Series with the Houston Astros. What went wrong? In short, a lot. Can David Ross fix it? Not by himself.
After the Cubs exorcised 108 years of heartbreak in the greatest game ever, played on a Wednesday in Cleveland, everything looked to be bright for the franchise. Helmed by franchise architects Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason Mcleod, along with charismatic coach Joe Maddon, the Cubs had a foundation that could survive the yearly churn of injuries and new players. Everything looked like it was set up perfectly, right until it wasn’t.
Major League Baseball, more than any franchise is the most difficult to have faith in because they literally play twice as many games over the course of a season than any other sport. So much can happen. Attrition is very real. The Cubs were no different. Even as they seemed to be producing new position players every season, Epstein and co. never figured out how to develop pitching talent. Instead, they relied on veterans. You can get away with guys like Jason Hammel and John Lackey once, but it isn’t sustainable.
In subsequent years, the Cubs were never able to develop pitching, and often made the wrong move in the hopes of creating a season long patchwork in both the starting rotation and bullpen. Honestly, does anyone have an ounce of faith in Craig Kimbrel going into next season as the team’s closer? Two of the three highest paid players on the team in 2020 will be Yu Darvish and Jon Lester, who are 33 and 36, respectively. Darvish seemed to have figured out what was wrong and became a dominant pitcher in the second half of 2019, but could fall off a cliff at any moment. Lester has seen his ERA and K rate go in the wrong directions over the past few seasons.
The high draft picks Jed and Theo have used on pitchers are a who’s that of Major League washouts and guys who never made it in the first place. Pierce Johnson and Paul Blackburn ring any bells? 2017 first round pick Brendon Little has shown slight flashes but very little more, and other first round pick from that year Alex Lange was traded this year. Duane Underwood and Rob Zastryzny are just guys. The Cubs have done a horrible job at evaluating young pitching.
And to be honest, they haven’t exactly been better on the other side. The first draft pick of the Epstein era? That would be light hitting Albert Almora. They also drafted Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ, who have been maddeningly inconsistent as Major Leaguers. They lucked into Kris Bryant when the Astros tripped over themselves to draft Mark Appel that year. Javier Baez, probably the best player on the Cubs? He was the final first round pick of the Jim Hendry era.
On top of that, the Cubs have made free agent signings that have hurt the team badly. Jason Heyward isn’t worth the 23 million he is going to make this season. It’s arguable whether Yu Darvish, on the hook for 22 million this year, has even remotely lived up to his contract thus far. Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Morrow are going to make a combined 28 million dollars this season, with the former being wildly inconsistent and hittable, and the other possibly never playing another baseball game.
After that, a lot of large paychecks are going to need to be cut soon. Javier Baez is a free agent after the season. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are lose after that. Wilson Contreras, too. Do you just cut Addison Russell lose at this point? What is Kyle Schwarber even worth at this point?
On the other end, the Cubs watched Jorge Soler lead the American League in home runs. Gleybar Torres was 12th in baseball in home runs this year on a team that went to the ALCS. Eloy Jimenez is going to be roaming the outfield of the south side for years to come. Dylan Cease looks every bit the potentially unhittable pitcher he was dreamed to be in the Cubs system.
Take all of that, and you can see why a team such as the Cubs was crushed under expectation and bad personnel moves. It was probably time for Joe Maddon to go. But the blame he shouldered so often by Cubs fans, who grew increasingly fickle and unbearable with a feeling that they deserve to be in the World Series every year, was unwarranted. Maddon brought a World Series to Chicago, and should never have to buy a drink in this city, again.
David Ross is now the coach because he is a guy who is going to go in, create a good clubhouse environment, and do whatever the advanced statistics say he should do in every given situation. That’s what Jed and Theo wanted in the first place. Maddon thought for himself too much. He had to go. David Ross is there to make guys smile and want to come to the park everyday. Then he will act as the yes man to the front office, who have too often gone unblamed for the mess they created, and which Joe Maddon took the fall for.
But what comes next for the Cubs? This team, as currently constructed, is not a World Series contender. Their bullpen is good in spots, but overburdened by huge contracts on the back end. There are decisions that have to be made. The roster is about to get very expensive. There are free agent pitching options out there, but they are almost exclusively over 30 years old. Do you really feel great about taking a deep gulp and giving a pitcher like Jake Odorizzi a 5 year/120 million dollar contract? What about breaking 30 million per year Gerrit Cole?
The reality is that the only way the Cubs fan extend their championship window is to trade one of their core players. Javier Baez’s name has been thrown around, but they really can’t make that move. Baez is one of the most popular players in baseball and is now on the cover of the new MLB video game debuting soon. Wilson Contreras could potentially bring a kings ransom, but you have to be 110% confident that Victor Caratini’s small sample size stats will play if he becomes the primary catcher. Anthony Rizzo is only on the hook for 14.5 million next year, and might be willing to accept a contract extension rather than risk the concept of becoming a free agent in a league that really doesn’t pay first basemen anymore.
That leads us to Kris Bryant. He was going to be the next legend. Minor League Player of the year in 2014. Rookie of the Year in 2015. MVP in 2016. He was the franchise. He was the centerpiece. In a large way, the fall of the Cubs seems to correspond with Bryant’s fall from grace, as well. Bryant was still a high level player in 2017, compiling a 6.1 WAR while leading the Cubs to the NLCS. Since then has been a different story. His 2018 was injury riddled quite a bit, and he limped to a 1.9 WAR, with only 13 home runs and a ballooned k rate. He was able to bounce back in 2019, but still wasn’t able to produce as he had earlier in his career.
The question is going to be asked, and the drum beat will continue to get louder that the Cubs should trade Kris Bryant now, while they still can squeeze maximum value. There are teams out there like the Braves, who are overloaded with pitching talent, and have a championship window and would probably be willing to back a Brinks truck up to Wrigley Field to get Bryant into the same lineup with Ronald Acuna. Other teams are out there, as well.
The team is David Ross’ to lead now, but for the Cubs to return to the playoffs, the people who matter in the organization are going to have to make something happen with this roster, via trade and/or free agency, otherwise we are destined to watch this team continue to be a third wheel in a two team division.
Brandon can be found on Twitter @theBman