So much for threading the needle.
The blockbuster trade the Cubs and Padres pulled off Monday night for Yu Darvish made that impossible.
In fact, with one, sweeping 5-for-2 trade that shipped out their best pitcher, the Cubs went from pledging to at least try to defend their 2020 National League Central title during a period of roster transition to tanking the 2021 season.
Tanking is nothing new for the Cubs. They became the first big-market team in major-league history to tank full seasons (post free agency) during their last rebuild, which started nine years ago. As ugly as that that tanking process was then, it produced a 2016 championship and came with the public promise of sustained success — with an implicit promise that more tanking would not be necessary.
To do it again four years after that championship is an indictment of the organization and a betrayal of a fan base that was charged top dollar during the last tanking process — and gouged to its bottom dollar since the championship.
As one fan tweeted Monday night: “What a way to end the year, with a massive gut punch.”
Many on social media were not as kind as that, especially when referring to a billionaire family of owners who profited annually off the club/fans until the pandemic while watching the franchise nearly quadruple in value from the 2009 purchase price of $846 million.
Chairman Tom Ricketts told ESPN in June that industry losses during a deadly pandemic and a time of record U.S. unemployment were “biblical,” then laid off more than 100 employees — most of whom were making much less than $100,000 — and then mandated payroll cutting for 2021.
And on Nov. 23 as Jed Hoyer was promoted to team president following Theo Epstein’s resignation, Ricketts seemed to assure fans that a tear-down/rebuild was not in play:
“I don’t think anybody’s tearing anything down,” he said.
The Cubs not only jettisoned the best pitcher from a team with starting pitching needs but threw in Victor Caratini, Darvish’s personal catcher and security blanket during that dominant second half in 2019 and Cy Young near-miss in 2020.
Non-tendering Kyle Schwarber might not be tearing anything down. Trading Kris Bryant might not even qualify.
But most of us knew exactly what a Darvish trade would signal.
On Monday it meant a smack in the face to Cubs fans who endured a painful climb the last time, a steep and quick decline after 2016 and a ballpark closed to spectators in 2020.
Trade the one power pitcher in the rotation for a bushel of A-ball prospects on the heels of his runner-up finish for Cy Young?
That message was clear:
Tanks, a lot. And don’t forget to order your Zach Davies jersey before spring training.
Davies, the former Brewers starter with one year left of club control, is the only player close to the big leagues among the five the Cubs got in the deal. He slots into the rotation behind Kyle Hendricks at this point.
It’s too early to know whether the Cubs will wind up with multiple All-Stars and celebrating this trade or regretting it after a run of dry Octobers. Three of the four prospects in the deal are teenagers; the other is 20.
But for what it’s worth, none of the four were ranked by prospect evaluators among the Padres’ top 10.
Who knows what that means four years from now?
Today it means one of the wealthiest, biggest-revenue, jewel franchises in the majors is tanking again.
And it’s an embarrassment.
It’s not what a financially healthy, big-market club does, even during a pandemic. It’s not what a team with a healthy farm system does. And you wouldn’t think it’s what a franchise trying to get an expensive new TV network off the ground does.
But by off-boarding most of the $60 million owed to Darvish over the next three years, the Cubs’ billionaire owners secured more breathing room to pay on those business loans they’ve taken out to buy up and redevelop Wrigleyville in recent years.
One source told NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan that those loans add up to about $1 billion in debt for the Rickettses involving the franchise and related businesses, such as Hickory Street Capital, their real estate company.
Whether it’s structured and connected to the franchise in a way that technically violates MLB’s debt service rules, it certainly seems to violate the intent of those rules (which are collectively bargained with the players union).
Either way, the immediate result is a nasty, bitter, tanking pill Cubs fans will be asked to swallow again — and to pay for.
If they still choose to this time around.