Cubs bid farewell to core on emotional day

July 31st, 2021

CHICAGO -- Before Anthony Rizzo exited Wrigley Field on Thursday evening, one day before the dismantling of the Cubs' core continued ahead of the Trade Deadline, the long-time first baseman succinctly summed up the situation.

"It happened," Rizzo said.

The anticipated reconstruction of Chicago's roster is actually underway. In the hours and minutes leading up to Friday's Deadline, Cubs cornerstones Javier Báez (Mets) and Kris Bryant (Giants) were among the players to follow Rizzo (Yankees) out the door.

Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer's public commentary since assuming the front office's top job last winter prepared the fan base for this moment. An 11-game losing streak between June and July, and the team's current fourth-place standing in the National League Central made it reality.

And still, none of that made it any less stunning to see the transactions become official in a whirlwind day of movement across baseball. This will go down, without question, as one of the most important 24 hours in the long, storied history of the Chicago Cubs.

"Was it emotionally difficult? Yes," Hoyer said via Zoom on Friday. "Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do."

To recap:

• Rizzo was dealt to the Yankees on Thursday in exchange for outfield prospect Kevin Alcantara and pitching prospect Alexander Vizcaino.

• Báez joined his long-time friend, Francisco Lindor, with the Mets. Righty Trevor Williams also went to New York in the deal, which sent highly touted outfield prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong to the Cubs.

Bryant landed with the Giants, who sent outfield prospect Alexander Canario and pitching prospect Caleb Kilian to the Cubs to reel in the 2016 NL MVP.

Closer Craig Kimbrel joined former Cubs setup man Ryan Tepera (traded Thursday) with the White Sox. The South Siders sent sidelined second baseman Nick Madrigal and pitcher Codi Heuer to the Cubs for the active saves leader.

• Outfielder Jake Marisnick was traded to the Padres for pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza.

• Those deals all come after the Cubs dealt lefty Andrew Chafin to the A's on Tuesday and outfielder Joc Pederson was traded to the Braves on July 15.

Rizzo's two-word reaction on Thursday was fitting because it echoed his joyful response to the sea of celebrating Cubs fans in Grant Park in Chicago five years ago. From the stage, Rizzo had a message that had been 108 years in the making.

"It happened, baby!" Rizzo declared to the roaring crowd. "It happened!"

A core group led by Rizzo, Bryant, Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras as the young lineup foundation helped the Cubs capture the World Series crown in 2016. It had the makings of a dynasty, but there were no parades after the next three playoff journeys.

The inability to recapture that glory coincided with a lack of contract extensions for the core players and October-oriented trades that left the farm system thin. The offense evolved into a streaky, strikeout-prone production susceptible to high peaks and low valleys, as the front office continued to trust in the stars.

"At least to me, it was a very clear and obvious decision," Hoyer said. "We weren't able to reach extensions. So, we could either hold these players for two months and have them compete for a fourth-place team.

"Or, we could do everything we could in our power to reset our farm system, to reset our organization, and I think we accelerated that incredibly over the last 10 days or so."

Now, facing a situation in which a pile of players can hit free agency -- Báez, Bryant and Rizzo among them -- Hoyer had to put sentimentality to the side in favor of building for the future. That meant continuing the process of gathering young, controllable players.

Hoyer said the Cubs discussed extensions with the team's core group, but could not find common ground.

"These are guys we have grown to really care for and their families, so that part is really difficult," Hoyer said. "But I have to say, we made offers to everyone that I believe will stand up exceptionally well. We weren't able to reach deals.

"Does that frustrate me? It does. But I have to be honest: I know we put our best foot forward. I'm proud of the offers we made."

A day after parting with the heart and soul of the Cubs in Rizzo, that meant also moving on from Bryant, whose early-career collection of hardware was incredible.

After Bryant won the Golden Spikes Award as the top college player, the Cubs picked him second overall in the '13 MLB Draft. He then was the Minor League Player of the Year in '14, NL Rookie of the Year in '15 and an MVP and World Series champion the next season.

"I didn't even know how to spell his name in Spring Training," Cubs manager David Ross joked. "[I joked] that I had more [homers] than him in the big leagues and he was nobody. And this guy goes on to win Rookie of the Year, MVP and help us win the World Series."

It meant parting ways with Báez, who pulled off hard-to-believe plays that earned him the nickname "El Mago," Spanish for "The Magician."

The shortstop with that violent, all-or-nothing swing started for the NL All-Star team twice for the Cubs, was the NL MVP runner-up in '18 and picked up his first Gold Glove Award in '20. Báez grew from a raw prospect into a formidable presence in the box and a defensive wizard at short.

Báez was asked if he would consider returning to the Cubs as a free agent.

"To be honest, I would love to. But I don't know," he said. "I don't know what will happen this offseason with all these moves and the plan this organization has. Obviously, I'm grateful for everything they've done for me."

It meant parting with Kimbrel, who weathered two rough seasons before finding his footing again as an all-time relief ace this year. The eight-time All-Star has a pristine 0.49 ERA to go with 23 saves, while striking out 64 of 137 batters faced.

"Saying goodbye is always tough," Kimbrel said. "But with that comes a great opportunity. And it's a great ballclub on the other side."

After the smoke cleared on one of the busiest days in team annals, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts released a statement on the core group now wearing new uniforms.

"I want to personally thank Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez and Kris Bryant," Ricketts said. "Together they played critical roles for one of the most successful runs in Chicago Cubs history. They each secured a place in the hearts of Cubs fans everywhere. While their days taking the field as Cubs have come to an end, they gave us memories we will hold forever.

"I also wish to acknowledge Jed and his team for making the tough decisions necessary to build the next great Cubs team."

The "next great Cubs team" is a line Hoyer has used on a few occasions when discussing the end goal of this process. The front-office leader has also emphasized that he does not believe this will be a long rebuild like Cubs fans experienced nearly a decade ago.

No matter what label is applied, it was a tough day in Washington, D.C., where players learned the news and said goodbyes. Television cameras caught Bryant in the Nationals Park dugout, giving hitting coach Anthony Iapoce a hug before heading into the clubhouse.

"They changed my life," Ross said. When you lose those really good human beings, along with good players," Ross said, "it's just emotional, besides the history I have with a few of them."