We are almost through the MLB's regular season and if the season ended today, the Cubs would be in the playoffs as the second wild-card team.
But not much about the 2019 season has felt right - or easy - for a team with the second highest payroll in baseball.
After a disappointing 2018 season that saw the Cubs lose a division title tiebreaker to the Milwaukee Brewers and the wild-card game to the Colorado Rockies - with both games at Wrigley Field - the pressure to achieve at an extremely high level in 2019 was ratcheted up when president Theo Epstein held a 71-minute end-of-the-year press conference in which he said the Cubs offense was broken, that October starts in March, and that performance would be valued more than potential.
So, as we sit here in mid-September, there are many questions that still have not been answered in a positive fashion, and those failures have contributed to a team that is in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2014.
Have the Cubs fixed their broken offense? From my seat, they have not. They still don’t have a leadoff hitter on their roster, they have far too many games in which their offense disappears, and they still don’t have an everyday centerfielder. Add in a subpar bullpen and an inconsistent starting rotation and you have a team that does not resemble the 2016 World Series champions that many - myself included - thought could become a dynasty.
So who is to blame for this organizations on-field failings? Is it manager Joe Maddon? The front office that orchestrated many of the moves the led to the 2016 title? Is it the players themselves, who in many cases have not lived up to the stardom projected for them just a few short seasons ago?
Let’s start with the players. Yes, there have been injuries and unusual circumstances that have affected the team’s ability to gain consistency offensively. No one could have forecast the marital troubles that drove Ben Zobrist to leave the team for the better part of 4 months. His departure not only robbed the Cubs of their best option for their leadoff hitter, but it also took away one of the team’s veteran leaders and one of their most respected voices in the clubhouse. Not having Zobrist certainly has affected the team’s clubhouse chemistry.
The offense has had some great moments, and when you look at the statistical seasons compiled by some of the Cubs' best players, you see solid numbers from the likes of Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras and a rebound season from Gold Glove outfielder and team leader Jason Heyward, who has had his best season in Chicago.
But, the night-to-night inconsistency offensively has kept the Cubs from ever going on a long run of success that would have allowed them to stay atop the NL Central. Add in a team that is one of the worst in baseball on the base paths and a team that is very mediocre defensively and you see why the Cubs have played under .500 baseball since they began the season 25-14.
So who is to blame for this team’s shortcomings? There are three parts of the organization and all deserve their fair share of criticism. The players, the front office and manager Joe Maddon and his coaching staff. I hold the players most accountable because there is more than enough talent on this roster to win the division and to contend for a championship. But this roster has underachieved, and if this season doesn’t end on a high note I expect major changes before the 2020 season.
The front office also deserves their share of blame for the Cubs' failings since winning the 2016 World Series. If I bought a team I would want Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to run my organization because I believe they are among the best in all of professional sports.
However, we also have to look at their performance since 2016 with a critical eye and a dose of honesty. They have missed badly on their free agents signings since they won the World Series. From Brandon Morrow to Tyler Chatwood to Daniel Descalso, those deals have missed badly. The Cubs' minor league system has failed to add impact talent to the major league roster. Add in a $126 million contract for Yu Darvish that has yet to show a big return on the Cubs' massive investment, plus several shaky bullpen signings, and you have the blueprint for a team to struggle when it is expected to contend for another World Series.
Much was made of the budget restrictions that the Cubs' front office had to deal with last winter, but when your team payroll is $218 million, it's hard to complain that you are being hamstrung by a lack of payroll commitment from ownership.
That brings us to manager Joe Maddon, who has taken the Cubs to the postseason every season he has been the manager and has averaged 97 wins per year through his four full seasons on the job. Maddon has done an excellent job at establishing a culture that his players thrive in, and his record speaks for itself.
However, Maddon has failed to establish a consistent lineup, he has struggled to handle his bullpen and his team is not living up to the massive expectations that come with a high payroll and four straight trips to the postseason. Despite all of his on field successes, he remains a lighting rod for criticism from a large percentage of the Cubs' fan base. Most observers expect Maddon to leave Chicago once his contract expires after the 2019 season.
After winning the 2016 World Series, much was expected of one of baseball’s youngest and most talented clubs. However, a slow start in 2017 left the Cubs playing catch-up much of the season. And while they did beat the Washington Nationals in the NLDS, they were steamrolled by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. In 2018, the Cubs won 95 games but their inconsistent offense forced Epstein himself to admit that the Cubs offense “broke” in the second half of the season.
What if 2016 was actually the outlier and the truth of the matter is that maybe the Cubs just aren’t as good as we all thought they would be? Could that actually be the case?
The Cubs still have major holes on their roster. Who is their leadoff hitter? They don’t have one. Who is their regular centerfielder? They don’t really have one. Who is their regular second baseman? They don’t have one.
How about a couple of high leverage, lockdown relievers? They really don’t have those either. Add in a need for younger starting pitching with the Cubs' rotation all in their 30’s and you can see that there is plenty of work ahead to overhaul a team that might be seeing their championship window closing unless management makes major moves this offseason.
Think about it. The 2016 Cubs were supposed to be the start of a dynasty, a team that would win multiple championships. Instead, they may have already peaked. They appear ready to change managers and they may be ready to trade away some of their once vaunted core of position players.
Everyone in the organization deserves blame for the Cubs' myriad of issues. But no matter how you add up the problems, the answers aren’t easy to obtain.
I hope you enjoyed the golden age of Cubs baseball over the past five seasons because the championship window may be closing.
One championship and that’s it?
What is this, the 1985 Chicago Bears?
Say it isn’t so.