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Cubs' trajectory in question after crushing NLWCG loss

Chicago's championship window dwindling; Maddon's future uncertain
October 3, 2018

Truly historic teams throughout baseball history are valued not for whether they simply win a championship, but how many they win. The reason the Big Red Machine still has such a psychic hold on us is because they won two titles. Derek Jeter would be just another shortstop had the

Truly historic teams throughout baseball history are valued not for whether they simply win a championship, but how many they win. The reason the Big Red Machine still has such a psychic hold on us is because they won two titles. Derek Jeter would be just another shortstop had the Yankees only won one championship, but winning five made him a legend. Conversely, certain teams in baseball history are judged not for what they did, but what they didn't. The Braves won 14 straight division titles starting in 1991, but that they only won one World Series will always put them in a slightly lower tier. The same goes for the late-2000s Phillies and even those old Bash Brothers A's.
The Cubs are one of those teams we've all expected to be in that historic next tier. One World Series title was never going to be enough for these Cubs, as glorious and immortal as that 2016 championship might have been. This was supposed to be the Cubs of perpetual contention, the team with the never-ending fount of talent, the machine that would take full use of the Cubs' natural advantages and run ragshod over the National League Central for years. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein and Company shook awake the sleeping giant. The question wasn't whether the Cubs would win another title after 2016. It was how many more would they win?
After the Cubs' crushing, 2-1 loss in 13 innings to the Rockies in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Hankook Tire on Tuesday, many fear that the answer is starting to look like zero. This is a bit rash to say about a team that reached the NL Championship Series last season and followed up with 95 wins this year. But empires crumble faster than you think sometimes: To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, they collapse gradually, then suddenly.

After a gruesome two-day stretch at Wrigley Field -- when the Cubs went from being in line to have home field advantage throughout the NL playoffs and perhaps the entire postseason, to watching their season end as two separate teams sprayed champagne in their visiting clubhouse with -- everything seems in flux. In a piece for The Athletic, MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal is speculating whether the Cubs might be done with Joe Maddon.
Chicago's entire bullpen, and maybe its rotation, seem ripe for a total overhaul. Every Cubs fan I know has been texting me all morning saying unspeakable things about hitting coach Chili Davis. It feels like the end of something that wasn't supposed to end yet.
But, allotting for the potential of what Rosenthal implies might be irreconcilable differences between Maddon and Epstein, in the light of morning after the grogginess of Tuesday night, that all seems perhaps a bit premature. One of the most remarkable things about Tuesday's game was how hot the Wrigley Field crowd remained from start to finish. Cubs fans might be frustrated with this year's incarnation of their team, but they were roaring to the end. I'm not sure I've heard a louder sound in baseball this year than the one that crowd made when Willson Contreras merely walked.

Ordinarily, when a former championship team fades, it's because its players have gotten older, maybe a little less hungry and maybe a little bit more satisfied. But the fun of the Cubs -- of Contreras, of Pedro Strop, Anthony Rizzo, and of course Javier Baez -- is that they are so emotional. They feed off the energy of their home crowd and give it right back to them. The Cubs didn't play like a team that was fat and happy and living off past successes. They played like a team that was desperate to win, but just couldn't. Strange things happen over two days of baseball. The Cubs won 95 games this year and then ran into Jhoulys Chacin and the Brewers bullpen one day and Kyle Freeland and the Rockies the next. It happens.
That the Cubs lost those two games does not necessarily point to some sort of clear rot for the franchise: Remember, this team won 95 games with Kristopher Bryant missing 60 games (and being hobbled for the 102 he did play), a rotation that was touted as the Majors' best but imploded on them and several young players underachieving offensively. Those young players are still there, and the Cubs are still run by smart people who know what they're doing, who have proven what they can do.

I know we live in a short-term memory universe, but one would theoretically think taking the franchise with the saddest, most destitute history in all of professional sports and turning them into champions would give you the benefit of the doubt, or at least a couple of years worth. If the Cubs put the same team on the field next year, they'd still be the favorites in the NL Central, and we know they're going to attempt to put an even better team on the field next year. They could be bidders for Bryce Harper, acquire more starting pitching or spend for bullpen arms. The Cubs are going to be good next year, maybe great. This is the end of nothing.
But Tuesday's loss to Colorado certainly ratchets up the urgency of whether Maddon stays or not. The Cubs have already made a series of win-now moves -- perhaps most notably trading Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez -- that were made specifically to help grab that second championship but now those moves look like they're going to haunt them for years to come. With a farm system that is improving but still recovering from those trades, the Cubs need to continue to floor it and try to squeeze another title out of this core. And they've got a few years to do so.
2021 is a big cutoff date. That's the year that Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Jonathan Lester and Kyle Schwarber all become free agents. That gives them three years, which is plenty, and that's not even accounting for anyone they might add, or whether Yu Darvish can get healthy and recover from the right triceps tendinitis that limited him to just eight starts in 2018. This is not the late-era Ryan Howard Phillies or the just-hanging-on Tigers of late; teams irrationally trying to win now at the expense of the future. The Cubs have everything locked in just as well now as they did a week or a year ago. The plan is still working.
But it will only work if they win another title. Winning only the 2016 World Series would turn this era's Cubs into, well, the 1985 Chicago Bears, actually, a team that was so magnetic and memorable and historic that it's surprising, years later, to remember they only one won Super Bowl. How did a team with that much talent win only one? It will be hard to imagine if the Bryant-Rizzo-Baez Cubs only win one championship. One week ago, the Cubs had four chances to do it. Now they have three. That is still plenty. That is still a lot.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com