For years, we talked about the Chicago Cubs’ looming cliff, and the things they could and should do to avoid it. In short, the alignment of so many players’ contracts and team control – including Theo Epstein – would eventually come to a head after the 2021 season, and the talent level on the roster could fall off of a cliff. Literal years ago, the Cubs were trying to avoid what was coming by smoothing the transition into the next phase of the organization’s competitive cycle.
But they didn’t, unless you count Epstein leaving a year early, Kyle Schwarber being non-tendered a year early, and Jon Lester moving on, too. The path to the cliff was unchanged – for reasons both within and without their control – and the organization walked right up to it and over the edge at the July 30 Trade Deadline.
Since then, the Cubs have been sufficiently bad that tanking and draft pick standing have been primary topics for discussion. People are debating whether this is the worst Cubs team ever, and how long the losing will last.
Against that backdrop, a Chicago Tribune column today sent a few folks spinning out, and I wanted to get into the topic a bit:
If the Cubs are as bad as they look (and, yes, they are), it would be crazy to throw money at free agents this winter.
— Chicago Tribune Sports (@ChicagoSports) August 30, 2021
The column isn’t quite as spicy as the tweet, by the way, so you might give it a read before you beef too aggressively.
The tweet – and the explosion of commentary about it on Twitter – got me thinking about when/where/why you would decide to “rebuild” with the current Cubs team, as we have come to understand and deploy that term (i.e., removing any and all established, productive players, making no significant financial additions to try to compete in the season(s) ahead, and try to finish those season(s) with the worst record possible – the plan from the jump is to lose more than you win).
From an existing talent perspective, both on the big league roster and at the highest levels of the farm system, you can see why people at least raise this topic. While the Cubs have a couple quality controlled veterans and some interesting younger players (and some interesting not-so-young players), it’s not a roster today that projects to be particularly competitive in 2022. I get that. Say what you will about it, and I won’t take too much issue.
But what I don’t think we should be ignoring is a full offseason ahead – teams frequently do make a whole lot of impact in a single offseason! – which comes with a reworked collective bargaining agreement somewhere in the middle. So much can change between now and April, both for the Cubs and for the division, that I don’t see much point in saying the Cubs are definitely going to suck in 2022 and indeed should intentionally pursue that course.
While there’s still uncertainty about exactly what they will do, I don’t think the Cubs at an organizational level are already planning to suck in 2022, either.
Jed Hoyer has declined to say this is the kind of multi-year rebuild you associate with teams bottoming out. The other president, Crane Kenney, suggested that is not in the cards. Even Tom Ricketts implied this wouldn’t look like 2012. These guys all have an incentive to BS about this process, but guess what? They all also have even stronger incentives for the Cubs to actually be competitive in 2022!
So, then, you approach this offseason looking for those thoughtful, maybe shorter-term deals (in free agency and in trade for, say, arb-level players). You address the needs, and maybe you pay higher annual values to get shorter-term contracts. Lord knows the Cubs should have plenty of payroll space to do it. It’s a very robust free agent class, the Cubs have a very robust set of open spots, and the Cubs have a robust pool of dollars and prospects from which they could make moves.
Now, that doesn’t mean I think the Cubs will definitely be GOOD in 2022, or that the odds against winning the NL Central are not long. The cliff was real! A whole lot of talent is gone! The Cubs are more likely than not to be oof-kinda-bad in 2022!
It means only that, as we sit here today, I don’t think it makes much sense to suggest the Cubs intentionally write off the 2022 season, without any efforts whatsoever to put together a competitive club this offseason. That would serve no real purpose, particularly standing in contrast to an offseason focused on giving yourself a shot in 2022 (without closing any longer-term doors or harming your long-term health in the process).
The Cubs paid a steep price for the flexibility that the cliff created. They might as well try to use it. Deciding today to foreclose that possibility makes very little sense.
And only then, if you stink again come July 2022, maybe you do the sell-off cycle again. Of course, even if *that* were the plan, it *still* means you want to try to add quality players this offseason with the dollars you have available.