Cubs' Once-Surefire Growing Dynasty Now Faces Significant Question Marks

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 20, 2017

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 19:  Manager Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs relieves Jose Quintana #62 in the third inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game five of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

After going 108 years in between World Series titles, the possibility of winning two straight probably always was too good to be true for the Chicago Cubs.

Still, the Cubs won't make good on dynasty potential until they add at least one more title to the one they earned in 2016. Now's the time to acknowledge that this falls more toward "said" than "done" on the easy spectrum.

The Cubs' pursuit of the 2017 crown came to an end Thursday in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field. The only silver lining is that the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't break any more north siders' hearts than they had to.

The 11-1 final that earned the Dodgers their first National League pennant since 1988 was the whole series in a nutshell: A rout that the Cubs never had much chance of winning.


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Where do the Cubs go from here? A good start would be a self-indulgent pat on the back for another nice run.

They did play in their third straight NLCS, after all. And their regular season was a fine display of gumption if nothing else.

Their 92 wins pale in comparison to the 97 and 103 that they earned in 2015 and 2016, respectively, but it was a fine end result for a team that was just 43-35 at the All-Star break. Plus, those 92 wins were good enough for a second straight NL Central title.

Once that pat on the back is finished, the Cubs can then let out a sigh of relief as they realize that many of their dynasty cornerstones aren't going anywhere.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 18:  Kris Bryant #17, Addison Russell #27, Javier Baez #9, and Anthony Rizzo #44 of the Chicago Cubs meet during a pitching change in the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game four of the National League Champion
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Above the field, the front office will be run by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer for the foreseeable future. In the dugout, Joe Maddon is signed to manage through 2019.

Meanwhile, on the field, Chicago's lineup has homegrown products Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ all controlled for the long haul, with veterans Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward around for a few more seasons on multi-year contracts. On the mound, the Cubs have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana to build around.

"Heads up. We're going to keep getting better," Maddon said after Game 5, per Chris Emma of CBS Chicago.

But, about that mound. That's where the questions begin popping up like champagne corks in the Dodgers clubhouse.

Chicago's pitching wasn't nearly as strong in 2017 as it had been in 2016. The club's regular-season ERA rose from 3.15 to 3.95, and Thursday's 11-1 stomping froze its postseason ERA at 4.54. 

The most obvious area that needs fixing is the bullpen. It did its best to ruin the Cubs' hot second half by posting a 4.48 ERA. It then sunk even further by allowing 27 runs in 10 postseason games. All the while, free passes were a constant nuisance.

"Frankly, that's been a theme with our pen," Epstein said this week, per CBS Chicago. "I mean, the headline with our pen is 'Good regular season, real tough postseason.' But in both the regular season and the postseason, we just walked far too many guys."

This would be a tough problem to fix under any circumstances. The fact that ace closer Wade Davis is due for free agency this winter makes it even tougher.

The Cubs will also have slots to fill in their starting rotation. John Lackey is ticketed for free agency and possibly retirement. Jake Arrieta is yet another pending free agent. And with a Cy Young in his pocket and plenty of numbers in his favor, he won't be cheap to re-sign.

"He's a squirrel with a lot of nuts in the tree. He's a big-game squirrel," Scott Boras, Arrieta's agent, said, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 18:  Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs reacts in the middle of the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game four of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 18, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Re-signing Arrieta would be easily doable if the Cubs, who opened 2017 with a $172 million payroll, didn't have anything lurking beneath their $94 million in commitments for 2018. But they do.

Among those headed into arbitration for the first time next spring are Bryant, Russell and Hendricks, each of whom figures to get a hefty payday. The Cubs must also earmark money for the looming arbitration payouts of their other young stars.

All this will put limits on their budget for Arrieta and any other aces (e.g. Yu Darvish and possibly Masahiro Tanaka) on the open market. As such, the Cubs may have to turn to lesser free agents.

The trade market is typically a viable alternative for teams in their position. But for these Cubs? Less so.

Assorted blockbusters—most notably for Aroldis Chapman in 2016 and Quintana this year—over the past two seasons have sucked Chicago's farm system dry. To wit, it currently doesn't have a single prospect in MLB.com's top 100.

So, if the Cubs are going to use the trade market to replenish their pitching staff, it may mean sacrificing some pieces from their major league roster.

Moving Heyward in a bad contract swap could be Epstein's and Hoyer's preferred play, but they may have to get more serious to acquire serious help. Schwarber has been a trade-rumor favorite in the past and could be again. Baez, Almora and Happ are candidates to join him on "Expendable Young Talent" pile. 

It bears repeating that the Cubs will continue throwing their weight around like, well, actual bears in coming years no matter what happens this winter. They're simply too loaded to not be one of the National League's top contenders on an annual basis.

Yet there's no denying they took a step down from an impressive peak in 2017. Nor is there any denying that avoiding yet another step down in 2018 hinges on some creative wheeling and dealing happening over the offseason.

This is the thing about dynasties. Starting one is hard enough. Actually seeing one through to completion is harder. 

                  

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Contract and payroll info courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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