It was, for a time, pretty attractive to talk about the 2016 season in relation to the current Chicago Cubs. No, not because that year featured the Cubs winning the World Series (people forget that), but instead because it featured the New York Yankees selling at the deadline. A rarity in the history of that organization, and notable for that reason, alone.
But the Yankee sell-off was also notable – and compelling in relation to the Cubs – because it wound up being a mere half-year reboot. There was no rebuild (however we’re defining that term), and the Yankees would go on to win 91 games in 2017 while making the playoffs.
Sure, the Cubs are selling off at the deadline in 2021, the argument went, but look at what the Yankees did in 2016! The Cubs can be right back there competing in 2022 just like they did! Maybe it made some sense in August 2021, at least as burned Cubs fans tried to lick their wounds.
Any enduring thoughts people had in making the comparison went out the window, in my view, when it became clear what the Cubs’ offseason strategy was heading into 2022: sign some longer-term pieces that can help in 2023+, but mostly focus on just trying to give yourself an outside chance at competing, while keeping virtually all investments short-term, and be in a position to sell again at the deadline.
It just was not what the Yankees did.
Much of this is the focus of a great read from Sahadev Sharma on how the Yankees of 2016-17 did what they did, how it wasn’t ever really a great parallel for the 2021-22 Cubs, and what lessons might be there for the Cubs if they actually want to compete in 2023:
Among the key differences between the 2016-17 Yankees and 2021-22 Cubs? The latter did not have the same caliber of young talent ready to go and ready to break out:
Perhaps one of the biggest keys to a surprise season is young players coming up and impacting the team from the start. That’s how the Yankees went from sellers in 2016 to contenders in 2017. Luis Severino went from a 5.63 ERA in 2016 to finishing third in Cy Young voting. Gary Sanchez followed up his runner-up Rookie of the Year campaign with an All-Star season. And, of course, there was Judge, a rookie who entered the season coming off a rough debut, ranked in the bottom half of most top-100 prospect lists, and then ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, finished second in MVP voting and became an overnight New York sensation.
Those three players, alone, were worth a whopping 18.7(!) WAR for the Yankees in 2017. They were the three most valuable players on that team and were, essentially, the entire difference between a playoff team and another midseason seller. That’s the primary way you pull off a quick reboot, and was also probably a major factor in the Yankees knowing they could pull off a quick reboot at that time.
You can already see where any attempted parallel to the 2021 Cubs is gonna run into speed bumps.
The Cubs heading into 2022 didn’t quite have that caliber of potential breakout star youngster either on the roster or just on the cusp. Nico Hoerner was more of a potential “very good” player. Ditto any of the young pitchers, except for Caleb Kilian, who hadn’t even pitched at Triple-A yet coming into this year. Brennen Davis has that true impact potential, but was always going to be late-arriving (and now might not reach the big leagues until well into next season). Most of the other potentially big-time impact types are still multiple years away.
OK, but what about 2023? Are we saying the Cubs can’t even pull a Yankees then? No, no. I’m not saying that, and neither is Sharma. But it’s going to take a lot of things going right from here.
Firstly, the Cubs DO have to have those big young breakouts next year. You have to have guys who really pop, starting ASAP – which is why Sharma mentions Christopher Morel, both because he does seem to have the potential now to be a really impactful guy in 2023, but also because he was not expected to emerge this quickly to this extent in 2022. There have to be others like that who just explode over the next 12 months, and take themselves into that “impact” tier, even if we don’t see them that way as we sit here today. Tall ask, I know.
And then there’s the other stuff that went right/smart for the Yankees: the existing veterans on the roster were solid performers, and the team spent aggressively to fill holes and paper over mistakes. For the Cubs, that would mean needing guys like Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki (and Ian Happ if he’s still around) to be big contributors next year. It would mean needing guys like Nico Hoerner and/or Patrick Wisdom and/or Nick Madrigal to all be 3-ish win players. It would mean needing to spend significantly in the rotation and on at LEAST a couple quality bats, all of whom do in 2023 what the Cubs hope they can do. And it might mean at least one good old fashioned baseball trade that works out really well
Expected youngsters pop. Surprising youngsters pop. Needed veterans do their thing. Quality regulars do their thing. Big spending that generates big impact. Good trade(s).
All of this stuff can happen for the Cubs over the next seven months. Do I think it will? Am I as optimistic on 2023 as I was back in the spring, when I wasn’t buying contention in 2022, but was pretty vocal about there being a path in 2023? I’m not, though maybe I’m just caught up in the moment. Primarily, the injuries/performance questions on Stroman, Suzuki, and Davis are what have given me new concerns, as well as the increasing clarity that Willson Contreras ain’t coming back. Those are huge, important question marks right now.
I suppose this is all to say, read Sharma’s piece for more on the state of things and on the relationship between a team like these Cubs and a team like those Yankees. I think it serves as a reminder about why there was never a great parallel there, how much the Cubs have to do before next season (“spend money!” isn’t everything, but it is definitely still important), and how disproportionately impactful those breakout young stars can be.