Heading into the 2020 season, the Chicago Cubs find themselves at a crossroads. Known as lovable losers for years on end, the team finally broke through and produced a historic run of great seasons as playoff contenders in the last decade. After failing to capture that same magic last season, the Cubs have come back down to Earth. Now the team is seemingly stuck in between two phases — rebuilding and contending — and can’t decide which way to go. There’s one decision the Cubs need to make before spring training, and they need to make it fast.
The case for the Cubs as contenders
As recently as 2016, the Cubs were on top of the baseball world. That’s the year they broke their century-long curse to win the World Series over the Cleveland Indians in a thrilling seven-game series.
The Cubs also went to the playoffs every year between 2015 and 2018. Here’s how they finished each year:
- 2015: Lost in the NLCS
- 2016: Won the World Series
- 2017: Lost in the NLCS
- 2018: Lost in the NL wild-card game
While ending their season with a loss three out of four years may seem like a negative, at least the Cubs were doing so in the playoffs. The team was perennially knocking on the door of a championship — and was able to knock it down one of those seasons.
That all changed in 2019.
The case for entering rebuilding mode
The Cubs disappointed in 2019, finishing third in the NL Central with an 84-78 record. They also allowed manager Joe Maddon, the skipper who guided them to World Series glory, to leave. He headed to Los Angeles to manage the Angels. The Cubs definitely had some bad luck during the season. Their Pythagorean win-loss would have put them at 90-72 based on their runs scored and runs allowed. That would have qualified them for the NL wild-card game, but the bottom line is they didn’t get the job done.
One of the Cubs’ top producers — both last season and in the preceding years in which they were in the thick of the playoff hunt — was third baseman Kris Bryant. Bryant is under contract for 2020 and has an arbitration year left on his contract in 2021, but he desires a long-term contract from the Cubs. The team has yet to decide on moving forward with him. It’s as if that single move is a metaphor for the Cubs’ overall direction as a franchise.
What the Cubs need to do before spring training
Simply put, the Cubs need to pick a lane. The team has yet to commit to either contending or rebuilding, which is evidenced by the team dragging its feet concerning Bryant.
In any sport, the last place a team wants to be is in the middle. If the Cubs are contending, they should act like it. They weren’t big players in free agency. Chicago is one of the biggest markets in baseball, so the Cubs could and should have been more aggressive, in the offseason, particularly with Bryant. They could have targeted multiple free agents this offseason to help them get back into contention, but they mostly stayed quiet.
On the other hand, the Cubs don’t seem to be bottoming out, either. If they really want to start over, they could trade away the pieces they still have and go with a full-on youth movement. That would put them in a position to receive higher draft picks and save money they can spend in later years on free agents they’ll have more interest in. By stripping away what they have now, they can build a stronger team for three to five years down the line.
What the Cubs are doing right now is straddling the line of being in both rebuilding and contending territory. That rarely works well for any team. Whatever Chicago wants to do, they should make up their mind in the next few months and then execute that game plan 100%.