Way back in 2016, it would have been difficult to fathom that the Chicago Cubs would be just three years away from a year of reckoning for the core that broke their World Series curse.
Yet here we are, fathoming exactly that.
By all rights, there shouldn't be any doubts about the Cubs' playoff chances for 2019. They brought an end to their 108-year championship drought just three seasons ago. Their 387 wins since 2015 are the most in Major League Baseball. If not for a late swoon, they would have nabbed a third straight National League Central title in 2018.
But then there's what Baseball Prospectus' famed PECOTA projection system has to say about Chicago's postseason chances—or lack thereof, in this case—as they project the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central.
Per Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, this isn't sitting well with Cubs manager Joe Maddon:
Patrick Mooney @PJ_Mooney
Joe Maddon’s response to PECOTA projections that predict #Cubs will finish last in NL Central with 80-82 record: “Who knows why or how they arrive at that stuff? It really means nothing. You got to go out and play the game. You got to compete. I have zero interest in (that).”
Ditto for star third baseman Kris Bryant, who told ESPN's Jesse Rogers on Saturday: "We see some of these projections. They are selling us totally short. That's not a good thing to do, because when our backs are against the wall, we turn it on. It's going to be an exciting season."
To be fair, some of this grumbling should be directed not outward, but upward. The Cubs would almost certainly have a better projection for 2019 if chairman Tom Ricketts and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein had facilitated a more active offseason.
Instead, they played it cheap and added only three new players for the coming season: utility infielder Daniel Descalso, right-hander Brad Brach and left-hander Xavier Cedeno. Right-hander Kendall Graveman was also added, but he could miss all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The other "to be fair," however, is that the lack of shiny new toys shouldn't be mistaken for a total lack of spending. The Cubs are slated to open 2019 with a club-record $212.5 million payroll. Their projected luxury tax bill is even higher at $226.9 million.
Still another "to be fair" is that PECOTA projections aren't gospel. Indeed, FanGraphs' projections have the Cubs finishing atop the NL Central over the reigning champion Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.
There's a big nit to pick with the Cubs' undermanned bullpen, but it won't matter if their veteran-laden starting rotation—Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana and Yu Darvish—and their offense live up to their potential.
Chicago's offense, in particular, must not be underestimated. It ranked atop the National League with a .771 OPS and 476 runs in the first half of 2018. It crumbled in the second half in part because Bryant was dealing with a shoulder injury that has since healed.
Altogether, the Cubs resemble a first-place team more than they do a last-place team. Though not entirely foolproof, their plan for 2019 is solid.
And yet there's the big question: What happens if it doesn't work?
Short answer: It would probably be the end of the Cubs as we know them.
As it is, there are already signs that the foundation on which the Cubs hoped to build a dynasty simply isn't strong enough.
Their triumph over the Cleveland Indians in the 2016 World Series was preceded by 103 regular-season wins. That was followed by a struggle to win even 92 games in 2017, and the effort to win 95 games in 2018 was just as arduous.
In digging into the causes of the Cubs' slow collapse, Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight pointed one finger at the diminishing returns of their core players. This is most alarming when the focus is narrowed to eight offensive players in particular: Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora and Kyle Schwarber.
These guys were in their early-to-mid 20s in 2016 and under Chicago's control through at least 2021. The Cubs had every reason to believe that their best days were ahead of them.
Per Baseball Reference, their ensuing wins above replacement paint a different picture:
Out of the eight, only Baez is a significantly bigger star now than he was in 2016. Maybe Bryant's superstardom will recover in 2019, but it's difficult to apply any such optimism to the others.
Rizzo, for instance, is slipping as an offensive threat as he approaches his 30th birthday on Aug. 8. Heyward's days as an offensive threat, meanwhile, are pretty much dead and buried. Russell's star was fading even before he was suspended 40 games after his ex-wife, Melissa Reidy-Russell, wrote a blog post in September alleging he had physically and emotionally abused her during their marriage.
Contreras might be the worst defensive catcher in baseball. Almora isn't much more than a glorified platoon outfielder. Schwarber has a strikeout problem standing between him and his upside. Ditto for Ian Happ, whose NL-worst strikeout rate in 2018 really killed the buzz of his 2017 rookie season.
In general, the offensive approach that served the Cubs well in 2016 is showing cracks. Their walk rate, strikeout rate and isolated power have each gotten worse. If new hitting coach Anthony Iapoce can't fix that, the Cubs will have to consider that maybe the personnel is the problem.
There's been occasional speculation about the Cubs possibly trading one of their core hitters (usually Schwarber) for an impact arm. Further disappointing returns in 2019 could lead them to go through with it. Heck, even Bryant could be on the table, according to ESPN's Buster Olney in November.
It'll be either that or a free-agent shopping spree on the 2019-2020 market, because promotions from the minors are all but out of the question. The Cubs' system wasn't rich in pitching even when it was at its peak several years ago. Now, it's the worst in the National League and perilously thin on arms.
In all likelihood, any post-2019 makeover of the Cubs wouldn't just concern the team's roster.
Since he's only in the third year of the five-year extension he signed in 2016, Epstein would probably be safe. But Maddon? Less so. He's only under contract through 2019 anyway, and the team's refusal to negotiate an extension is a thinly veiled ultimatum. Anything less than a World Series may not be enough to save his job.
That's where Maddon and the Cubs may be headed if everything breaks right and 2019 proves that 2017 and 2018 were mere bumps in the road.
If not, change will be afoot as the Cubs scramble to re-imagine their dynasty plans.