Chicago Cubs' Addison Russell falls to the ground after being hit by a pitch during the third inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019, in Milwaukee.
Photo: AP Photo/Aaron Gash
Photo: AP Photo/Aaron Gash

Why the Cubs’ fade should give the Braves pause

The Chicago Cubs are tied for the second wild card. The club with the National League’s highest payroll – above even the Dodgers’ – is in danger of missing the playoffs. This is a rather shocking development.

The Cubs won 97 games in 2015, their breakout season under Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod/Joe Maddon. They won 103 games and the World Series in 2016. As a mostly young club, they appeared set for the next half-decade. They haven’t been nearly as good since. 

They won the NL Central again in 2017 and reached the NLCS, where they were beaten 4-1 by the Dodgers. Last year they blew a five-game September lead and were tied after 162 games with Milwaukee, forcing a one-game playoff to determine the division champ. The Brewers won 3-1. The Cubs were then paired against Colorado in the wild-card game. They lost in extra innings. 

The 2019 season began with the Cubs being seen at the NL’s second-best team after L.A. They’ve seldom looked the part. They haven’t played .600 ball in any month. (The Dodgers did in four of the five full months; the Braves did in two of the five.) The Cubs are 30-25 since the All-Star break. They fell out of first place in the Central near the end of August. They’ve lost seven of 11 and remain four games behind St. Louis, which was 3-1/2 back Aug. 7. 

For a club of the Cubs’ resources, losing the division and being thrust into the play-in a game a second year running would be a major disappointment. As it stands, they’re not guaranteed of making the playoffs at all. Pesky Milwaukee has again pulled even, and the Brewers aren’t nearly as good as they were last year. 

On Tuesday, Milwaukee lost reigning MVP Christian Yelich to a shattered kneecap. In August, it designated for assignment Joulys Chacin, the opening-day starter. (Chacin was once a Brave for about five minutes.) The Brewers rank 10th among NL teams in runs scored and 12th in ERA. They’ve been outscored on the season. They shouldn’t be within 10 miles of the Cubs, but they’re tied with 17 games remaining. 

The Cubs have baseball’s second-highest payroll. The Red Sox have the highest. We addressed Boston’s failings yesterday, failings that resulted in team president Dave Dombrowski getting fired Sunday. The Cubs’ president is Theo Epstein, who’s held in even higher regard than Dombrowski. Having flouted curses in both Boston (the Bambino) and Chicago (the billy goat), Epstein is a cinch Hall of Famer. But here again we see the perils inherent in maintaining excellence. 

Under Epstein, the Cubs tore everything down and started again. Their climb back was built on young hitters who were top-10 draftees – Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ. Of the five pitchers who constituted their rotation in the World Series year, none was homegrown. Closer Aroldis Chapman was a three-month rental. Jason Heyward signed as a free agent for $184 million. Super-ute Ben Zobrist signed for $56 million. 

Three years later, the rotation remains a collection of imported – and pricey – arms. Jon Lester, Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels are making $67.5 million this season. The youngest of those is 33. Darvish is owed $91 million over the next four seasons. Oh, and the Cubs are paying Craig Kimbrel $45 million for 2-1/2 years of work, the first part of which hasn’t gone well.

To land Chapman for three months, Epstein sacrificed Gleyber Torres, an infielder who has hit 60 homers for the Yankees over the past two seasons. To land starting pitcher Jose Quintana, the Cubs traded outfielder Eloy Jimenez to the White Sox. Jimenez was rated the No. 3 overall prospect by Baseball America this spring. In 2015, the Cubs had MLB’s top-rated farm system. In February, ESPN’s Keith Law ranked their chain the second-worst. 

That’s sort of what happened in Boston. Good young players grew up and started winning big. In the attempt to keep winning, the front office began to sell off what prospects were left, and it’s hard to regenerate a farm system when you’re winning big because you’re not drafting in the top 10 anymore. Free-agent pitchers became necessary because both the Red Sox and the Cubs were heavy on homegrown position players, and no chain can be deep in everything. 

By osmosis, good (and cheap) young teams become older and exponentially more expensive. The upshot is that the Red Sox, with a payroll of $229 million, won’t make the playoffs; the Cubs, with a payroll of $218 million, might not. 

We mention this not to characterize the Cubs and the Red Sox as profligate or maladroit – both have won a World Series over the past three seasons – but to sound a warning bell. Like the Cubs and Red Sox, the Braves have ridden a top-ranked farm system to prominence. With Ronald Acuna and Mike Soroka and Max Fried and Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley in the majors, and with 13 international signings lost to MLB sanctions, this chain won’t be ranked in the top 10 much longer. 

We’ve seen Alex Anthopoulos make one-year buys to plug gaps with Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel, but there will come a time when the Braves will require outside help that will warrant a longer contract or command more than marginal prospects in trade. The Braves cannot spend on the level of the Cubs and Red Sox – Liberty Media won’t allow it – and that means Anthopoulos must get almost everything right. 

One difference: The Braves rebuilt around pitching. If Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson pan out, they might not have to find a rotational piece elsewhere. Then again, young pitchers are hard to project. Soroka already is an All-Star; Kolby Allard, drafted 14 slots ahead of Soroka in 2015, is gone. 

The good news – great news, actually – is that the Braves are good again and can expect to stay good for a nice long while. But it wasn’t so long ago that the Cubs were thinking in terms of multiple World Series wins, and that hasn’t happened. They have good players, and Baez and Bryant are better than good. They have smart people running the shop, but just about every front office is smart nowadays 

Winning is never easy. Winning the way the Dodgers have – seven NL West titles in a row – is really tough, and these Dodgers haven’t yet won a World Series. As warm and fuzzy as the Braves’ future seems, seeing the Cubs brings a bit of chill. And now, having harshed everyone’s mellow, we resume regularly scheduled programming.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.