CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs’ 2020 season officially began Feb. 11 in Mesa, Ariz., and ended Oct. 2 with the loss to the Miami Marlins in the wild-card series at Wrigley Field.
It’s hard to believe all the things that happened during those eight months, from the optimism of spring training to the gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic, from the shutdown in mid-March to the racial reckoning in the summer, from the restart in July to postmortems by manager David Ross and his players Friday.
It was “a season like no other,” as Ross said, and one they hope never to experience again.
So what did they learn from this year?
“You have a good day or a bad day, there wasn’t too many people in that clubhouse that you can really pick out that was having a good year or a bad year,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Friday.
“Baseball is a grind. It will humble you. I don’t care if you’re the best player in the world or (it’s) the first time, this game will humble you at some point. You’ve got to keep taking the punches. … At the end of the day, the game goes on.”
Indeed, the postseason goes on without the Cubs, one of four National League Central teams eliminated in the wild-card round. They won their division, but it turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, giving credence to the narrative it wasn’t the continuation of a six-year run of sustained success but rather Year 3 of the downfall.
“All empires must end one day,” a Cubs player told me during the spring of 2017, when the question was whether the Cubs could repeat.
Little did he know the fall of the Cubs’ would-be empire would begin eight months later, when Yu Darvish shut them down on Oct. 17, 2017, at Wrigley Field to give the Los Angeles Dodgers a commanding 3-0 lead in the National League Championship Series.
The Cubs won the next day to avoid a sweep but haven’t won a postseason game since — going 0-4 against the Dodgers, Colorado Rockies (2018 wild-card game) and Marlins while scoring three runs and hitting a combined .170.
Fittingly, the Cubs’ run ended Friday with Darvish throwing a gem at Wrigley Field but losing because of a lack of run support.
The heroics of the 2016 postseason aside, October has not been kind to the Cubs or their three biggest stars.
Rizzo has a career .205 average and .284 on-base percentage in 39 postseason games. Kris Bryant is batting .229 with a .239 OBP in 39 games, while Javier Baez is at .221 with a .250 OBP in 36 games.
They’re not alone, of course, but more was expected from them once the postseason spotlight was turned on. You can never take away what they accomplished together in 2016, but you also can’t ignore the fact they haven’t really done much in October since.
That leaves the team’s future in the hands of President Theo Epstein or perhaps general manager Jed Hoyer if Epstein bails in his final year, as NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reported is a possibility.
I can’t imagine Epstein bouncing after a season like this, but stranger things have happened. He’ll likely address the rumor in his annual Cubs autopsy Monday.
Whoever is in charge will face the same budget constraints Chairman Tom Ricketts mandated even before the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a blow to his many revenue streams — season tickets, rooftops, Wrigleyville business ventures and Marquee Sports Network, which will feature no live major professional sports programming until spring training.
Last year, Epstein opted to dump the manager instead of the players, replacing Joe Maddon with Ross and keeping the core intact. After the hot start in early August, Epstein said Ross “helped address some of the things that have been lingering for years.”
Epstein said it wasn’t meant as a shot at Maddon, who had been instructed to change his style in 2019 to conform to the needs of millennial players. Maddon complied, but the results were the same and it cost him his job three years after he seemingly had Chicago in the palm of his hands.
The offensive inconsistencies continued under Ross, providing evidence that Maddon’s laissez-faire approach to managing was not the main problem.
“I’ve sensed and feared and been concerned with a bit of a growing organizational complacency over time that has developed in the aftermath of the championship,” Epstein said at Sloan Park on the first day of spring training. “And I think that’s something we had to be open and honest about and talk about head on and how to combat it.
“Joe and I aren’t exactly the same. His approach is: ‘Things will work themselves out. These are great players. Let them play.’ From my perspective, there was a little more cause for concern.”
By now, everyone knows that the team options on Rizzo and Jon Lester are up this offseason and that Bryant, Baez and Kyle Schwarber will become free agents after 2021. There is no certainty fans will be allowed inside Wrigley Field next season or how Ricketts’ investments — including Hotel Zachary, restaurants, an office building and Marquee — will fare this winter.
Adding to the intrigue, no one knows the real trade value of the Cubs stars in their walk year.
Typically, you could shrug off a bad season, especially one like 2020 in which many of the game’s stars struggled. But with many teams facing financial uncertainty, how many would be willing to trade top prospects for only one guaranteed year of a player coming off a poor season?
One thing seems certain: Change is in the air.
In January at a charity function on the North Side, co-owner Laura Ricketts addressed the budget constraints ownership was facing.
“Baseball is so cyclical,” she said. “Everybody knows how baseball works. It’s ups and downs, and there are cycles and various periods of having certain players at certain times in their career.
“We also have to do all of that and put a team together in the environment we’re in and with the talent available.”
The environment changed almost overnight, making personnel decisions even more difficult heading into the offseason.
As fun as it has been to watch, this Cubs cycle appears to have run its course.
©2020 Chicago Tribune