Kaplan: How have the Cubs fallen this far from the days of dynasty talk?

Kaplan: How have the Cubs fallen this far from the days of dynasty talk?

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.

Cubs acknowledge meeting with free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama

Cubs acknowledge meeting with free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama

The Cubs have met with Japanese free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, general manager Jed Hoyer acknowledged Thursday. He also admitted the Cubs aren't the only team to have done so, however.

"Yeah, we met with him,” Hoyer said in San Diego. “Listen, a lot of teams were involved. Obviously he's a very good player and he's gonna have a good role on a major-league team this year, but I can't comment beyond that."

Akiyama would help the Cubs address their search for upgraded production from center field and the leadoff spot. The 31-year-old holds a career .376 on-base percentage in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. He hit .303 with a .392 OBP with the Saitama Seibu Lions last season.

Five Cubs center fielders combined to hit .232 with a .305 OBP in 2019, 20th in MLB. Only the team’s second base production was worse. Meanwhile, 11 Cubs leadoff men combined for the worst average (.212) and OBP (.294) in MLB out of that spot.

Akiyama has also met with the Diamondbacks, Rays and Reds and is looking for a two-year deal worth $8-10 million total, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. That could be in the budget-conscious Cubs’ price range, but they'll leave the Winter Meetings having only made a minor move via the Rule 5 Draft.

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Cubs leave Winter Meetings with a new pitcher

NBC Sports Chicago

Cubs leave Winter Meetings with a new pitcher

SAN DIEGO — The Cubs waited all the way until the final minutes of the MLB Winter Meetings to make a move, but at least they're not going home empty-handed.

For the first time since 2014, the Cubs made a selection in the Rule 5 Draft, adding pitcher Trevor Megill. The right-hander turned 26 last week and has spent his entire professional career in the San Diego Padres system.

Megill stands 6-foot-8 and posted a 3.86 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 39 minor-league games last year, mostly at Triple-A. He struck out 87 batters in 60.2 innings, including an eye-popping 12.7 K/9 rate with Triple-A El Paso. 

He figures to slot into the Cubs' bullpen for now. Per MLB rules, Megill, who has yet to make his MLB debut, must remain on the Cubs' big-league roster all season; otherwise, he would be returned to the Padres.

It's obviously not a splashy acquisition, but it allows the Cubs to get Megill into their Pitch Lab this winter and evaluate him throughout spring training to see if he can be the type of buy-low arm they've been stockpiling over the past year. That process has worked out for Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck so far, and the Cubs are hoping the trend will continue for their pitching acquisitions this winter (Jharel Cotton, Dan Winkler, CD Pelham and now Megill). 

"Megill is a guy we tried to trade for prior to the rosters being set in November," Jed Hoyer said. "He's a guy we've liked and got good reports on — big, physical right-handed reliever that had a good year last year in Triple-A. We've had some experience with him and we were excited he was there."

The Rule 5 Draft is not often an avenue to acquire impactful players, but it's not unheard of. 

The Cubs traded for Caleb Smith in the 2016 Rule 5 Draft, but ended up returning him to the Yankees that spring due to a roster crunch. Smith has turned into a solid starter with the Miami Marlins.

Back in 2012, the Cubs added Hector Rondon in the Rule 5 draft. He wound up saving 29 games for them two years later and emerged as a central piece of the bullpen for five seasons.

"When you have room on the roster, it's always a nice thing to do," Hoyer said. "There's times you can't do it — you don't have room on the roster sometimes and you can't fit it in. But in the years you do have that space on the roster, it's a nice thing to be able to do. Obviously there's challenges that come with it, but Megill is a guy we're excited about and excited to see him in spring training."

If the season started tomorrow, the Cubs' bullpen would probably look like this:

Craig Kimbrel
Rowan Wick
Kyle Ryan
Brad Wieck
Dan Winkler
Trevor Megill
Alec Mills/Tyler Chatwood/Adbert Alzolay/Duane Underwood Jr./Jharel Cotton

That's quite a different look from the veteran-laden relief corps of the last few seasons, but the Cubs are searching everywhere for reclamation projects, hoping to hit on a couple as they reshape their roster.

In the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 Draft, the Cubs added another pitcher: Brock Stewart, a 28-year-old who grew up in central Illinois and attended Illinois State University. He has 46 big-league games under his belt (including 11 starts) with the Dodgers and Blue Jays.

Stewart struggled mightily in 2019 (9.82 ERA in the big leagues and a 7.36 ERA in Triple-A), but he's only a few years removed from being a highly rated prospect in the Dodgers' system and presents as another low-risk reclamation project.

The Cubs also lost a couple notable players in the Rule 5 Draft Thursday: utility infielder Vimael Machin and right-handed pitcher Michael Rucker.

Machin, 26, was a 2015 10th-round pick who worked his way up to Triple-A in 2019. Overall, he posted an impressive .295 batting average and .390 on-base percentage in the minors last season (mostly in Double-A), but the Cubs ultimately chose not to protect him on the 40-man roster.

Rucker, 25, was a 2016 11th-round pick who appeared in 34 games for Double-A Tennessee and 2 games for Triple-A Iowa last year, pitching to a 4.18 ERA overall.