They’ve known what was at stake this season since Anthony Rizzo said in February that “we’re a bad start away from this team being blown up by the deadline.”
Seven months, one pandemic shutdown, a brief summer training period, 60 games and thousands of COVID-19 tests later, the Cubs woke up on Sept. 30 exactly where they hoped to be.
Well, maybe not exactly locked down at a Chicago hotel under quarantine conditions that allow only limited movement to and from Wrigley Field for playoff games for two or possibly three games this week — before entering a neutral-site playoff bubble in Texas if they advance.
But still together — if not a little closer because of the circumstances — and division champions with a home series to open the playoffs starting Wednesday.
Now buckle up.
Because they are.
Because for a core that has pulled off a franchise-altering six-year run of success, this is where they know their blaze of glory begins. It’s just a matter of how long into October it lasts.
“As far as anything going forward, you [writers] can go up and down the roster and figure out who’s under club control. It’s the vast majority of our team,” said team president Theo Epstein. “But as you do so, I think you’re well aware of the circumstances in this country and in the industry and with our organization to an extent with just how much uncertainty there is and what everybody’s gone through this year, and how many questions still need to be answered and can’t be answered right now.”
In other words, the Cubs, like many teams, already have laid off employees and cut salaries throughout the operation because of steep losses in projected revenue, and there’s no way to predict how long the pandemic will continue to suppress the business.
To retain even most of the nine players who remain from the 2016 championship core, it might take another World Series run — and a COVID-19 vaccine in the next couple of months. And that still might not be enough, with the payroll already near the highest in the game before the pandemic struck.
“Every year we’re together it’s obviously one year closer to when we could not be together,” said left fielder Kyle Schwarber on the eve of the playoff opener against the Marlins. “But we’re here to do something special every year and [pursue] the opportunities that we get to be great and make this city great and try to bring back a World Series championship again.
“Hopefully, that translates into some other things, if it’s us coming back and all being here longer or whatever it is.”
Schwarber, Rizzo, Javy Báez and Kris Bryant all are eligible for free agency after next season, Willson Contreras, the year after that, Albert Almora Jr. the year after Contreras, and Jon Lester’s contract is up in a few weeks.
The only two from the 2016 team who are under guaranteed contracts beyond this year are right fielder Jason Heyward and Game 1 playoff starter Kyle Hendricks, both of whom are signed through 2023.
Some from that core were shopped in trades last winter, before the Cubs stood pat and looked toward a trade deadline that was obliterated with the rest of the baseball calendar and the financial landscape of the game.
Which means payroll cuts are coming this winter, and it’s only a matter of how deep.
Which means buckle up for one last October ride with the group that broke the curse.
“Of course there’s tremendous uncertainty,” Epstein said, “and I think all that means is we put an even greater emphasis on living in the moment and not taking for granted the opportunity we have right now as a group to go out and make some history and add to this group’s legacy.”