Two years after the Chicago Cubs threw a World Series party 108 years in the making, their returns diminished to an unceremonious exit from the National League Wild Card Game.
The Cubs played 13 innings against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field and scored in just one of them en route to a 2-1 defeat. Thus their season ended only a day after the Milwaukee Brewers strolled into Wrigley and beat them 3-1 in the National League Central tiebreaker.
So for the first time since 2014, the Cubs will go into the winter with zero postseason wins to show for a campaign.
The one bright side to this is that president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer have more time to answer the questions before them.
The less bright side is how many of them there are.
The biggest and scariest is what the heck just happened to the team's offense. It had a huge hand in carrying the Cubs to 195 wins and NL Central titles in 2016 and 2017. But in 2018, it fell off a proverbial cliff:
- 2016: .772 OPS and 5.0 R/G
- 2017: .775 OPS and 5.1 R/G
- 2018: .744 OPS and 4.7 R/G
It only got worse as the year went along. The Cubs slumped to the tune of a .705 OPS and 4.1 runs per game in the second half. They were down to a .663 OPS and 4.0 runs per game by September and Game No. 163 against Milwaukee.
To be fair, it didn't help that Kris Bryant wasn't hitting like his MVP-caliber self even before his left shoulder started acting up in June. He was even more of a shell of himself after he returned July 11, and there was no hiding it in either Game No. 163 or the wild-card contest.
Otherwise, it's difficult to assess additional "to be fairs."
The Chicago offense lost its identity in 2018. Cubs hitters walked in only nine percent of their plate appearances, down from 10.4 in 2016 and 9.9 in 2017. They also went from 223 home runs last year all the way to 167 this year.
Only Javier Baez (34 HR and a National League-high 111 RBI) surpassed expectations. Anthony Rizzo endured a down year. And rather than taking steps forward, young stars Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. either regressed or were basically stuck in place.
The solution for this problem might be as simple as showing hitting coach Chili Davis the door. Perhaps with better tutelage, a 2019 Cubs lineup with all the same ingredients (plus a healthier Bryant) as the 2018 Cubs lineup will have little trouble rebounding.
Trouble is, the Cubs may not have much choice but to go this route.
The free-agent market will be crowded with talented hitters—Bryce Harper and Manny Machado chief among them—but the Cubs already have $179 million committed to 2019. That's by far more money than any other team.
This is counting all the club options the Cubs hold, including $20 million for veteran left-hander Cole Hamels. Unless they're comfortable trusting that Yu Darvish will return strong from the elbow injury that derailed his season, it seems all but certain Hamels' tab will be picked up.
What that $179 million doesn't include are arbitration costs for Bryant, Baez, Schwarber, Kyle Hendricks and others. Once those are factored in, the Cubs will be bumping up against the luxury tax just when other rich teams (e.g., the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers) are getting under it.
If so, the Cubs won't have much spending flexibility to improve their offense. Or, for that matter, to patch a bullpen with the highest walk rate in Major League Baseball over the last two seasons.
One option is to cut some bad contracts, such as those belonging to Jason Heyward and Tyler Chatwood. But given how far gone their trade values are, that will be easier said than done.
The Cubs could also resort to the trade market to find impact players, not unlike the Brewers did with NL MVP favorite Christian Yelich last offseason. But with only MLB's No. 29 farm system to pull from, that will also be easier said than done.
Because the Cubs just won 95 games and notched a fourth straight postseason appearance, it's a tad soon to declare their supposed dynasty dead and buried.
Yet whatever they were building has hit a major snag. And it's not clear how they're going to get around it.