I Dream of the Cubs Being RELEVANT Again
Man, we were spoiled. So, so spoiled. The run-up to — and aftermath of — the 2016 World Series championship was as “Hollywood” as it gets.
Think about it:
- The cold, calculated corporate entity sells the team to the doe-eyed, long-time Cubs fan Ricketts family. How wholesome.
- Then the new owner, who loved shaking hands with people around the stadium, brought in arguably the most highly sought after executive in professional sports, Theo Epstein, who brought in two other GM-level minds in Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod.
- Together, they remodeled the entire organization — from the ballpark, to the front office, to the players, themselves. They even stole one of the most exciting managers in baseball from the Rays, Joe Maddon, in a sudden and surprising move.
- During that run-up, the Cubs absolutely dominated top prospects rankings and signed the biggest free agent contracts in franchise history, including their best ever deal, Jon Lester.
- Then, of course, they went to three straight NLCSs, and won the 2016 World Series.
The winning was obviously the highlight of those years. The team felt unstoppable, and it felt SO GOOD to be a Cubs fan. I never – ever – took that part for granted.
The part I didn’t fully appreciate, however, was how good it felt to be relevant. And how much I would miss it when it was gone.
In those days, you couldn’t read a baseball article – local or national – that wasn’t touching on or, heck, fully-centered around the Cubs and what they were doing. Every single facet of the organization was a model for other teams to emulate. Every single rumor tied back to their potential interest. Every single podcast, power ranking, top-executive/player/prospect list, agent, and story mentioned the Cubs in one form or another.
It was awesome, being a fan of a team that EVERYONE was talking about all the time. We – the team, yes, but also our whole fan community – were relevant. We were seen. It was our league. Our players were guests on late-night talk shows and singing Cubs songs with Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live.
And then it all went away.
For the last several years, the Cubs have been nearly nonexistent in the national baseball discourse. Well, with the exception of bad news. Losing Theo Epstein a year early, the unceremonious breakup with Joe Maddon, Len Kasper switching sides, non-tendering Kyle Schwarber, firing over 100 employees to save money during the pandemic, Addison Russell’s fall from grace, trading away Yu Darvish, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez, letting Willson Contreras leave to the Cardinals, staying VERY far away from the top-end of free agency. So on and so on.
Yes, the team signed Dansby Swanson and had a solid overall winter improving the team. But even the most optimistic takes on their offseason are about them being “sneaky” decent or “quietly improved.” And at the end of the day, the Cubs are still projected to finish third in one of baseball’s worst divisions and finish among the bottom 11 teams in MLB. And while we love the depth of their minor league system – even if it was created largely on the same tanking principles we were promised wouldn’t again be necessary – they’re still just barely a top-10 system overall with a lack of clear, impact talent in the upper minors.
But it’s not even just about how good or bad they’ll be this year. I can see how the team could be set up for the sort of success that might not be immediately evident in statistical projections.
It’s about still not being relevant.
Right now, MLB is about the Mets and Steve Cohen. About the Padres and their crazy, unexpectedly aggressive spending and trades. About the Braves and their never-ending parade of team-friendly extensions. About the Twins surprisingly landing Carlos Correa … for the second consecutive offseason. About Aaron Judge and his massive new deal with the Yankees after setting the new single-season AL home run record. About the Phillies and their power-over-defense approach. About the Dodgers clearly gearing up for their big run at Shohei Ohtani. About the Astros powering through their scandals and continuing to win year-in and year-out, without ever having to engage in a second rebuild. About the Cardinals and their corner infield MVPs and their retiring, future Hall-of-Famers. Even the Rangers have added big stars like Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Jacob deGrom. These are the baseball conversations.
The Cubs are NOWHERE NEAR the topic of conversation for the broader baseball world. That makes me feel left out.
Winning tends to fix that, sure. And top prospect debuts can have the same effect. But Brennen Davis and Alexander Canario both got hurt. Matt Mervis is still a question mark, no matter how much we like him. Caleb Kilian’s debut did not go well. Pete Crow-Armstrong is a year away. Meanwhile, the Cubs took a big risk with their top-10 pick in the draft, while players they passed over are already ranking among the top-100. And they still don’t have an extension done with Nico Hoerner, Ian Happ, or Justin Steele.
Right now, in terms of the national baseball discourse, the Cubs are much closer to irrelevant than relevant. The third best of five teams in the fifth best of six divisions, who didn’t quite go far enough this offseason to re-enter the chat. It bugs me. As I type. It bugs me.
Spring Training is here. Players are arriving this week. And I will concede that the vibes around the team right now are better than they have been in YEARS. But only locally. And until the Cubs go out and start winning – a LOT – or starting spending big on free agents while rewarding their own players with extensions, they’re going to stay irrelevant. That’s a bad deal for Cubs fans.
I want that to change. I need there to be more. I want to be relevant again. It’s much more fun.