It’s Not Just You, Cubs Baseball Hasn’t Been Very Fun for Players Either
It’s a given that nothing could ever live up to the unadulterated elation of the 2016 World Series title, not when that final out took with it the weight of over a century of failure. But as the Cubs have learned in the three years since, one burden has simply been placed with another. Like Indiana Jones swapping a bag of sand for a golden fertility idol, the exchange has led to a crumbling of the building around them.
Sound too dramatic? I don’t know, man, these last three seasons have been progressively less fun to watch and have taken an increasingly hefty toll on my soul. And as Jared Wyllys of the Sporting News discovered recently, the same is true for some of the players themselves.
“Going through [all the early success], it’s like you’re constantly at the very tip-top of the mountain, winning all that stuff,” Kris Bryant told Wyllys. “And it’s kind of unrealistic to expect it every single year after that,” Bryant said. “But I think it’s human nature to be like, ‘I’ve been there before, why not do it again?’ That’s kind of where the struggle is.”
Though the front office has frequently talked about seeking out players who respond well to adversity, they really didn’t give their prospects much of an opportunity to experience hardship early on. Not only were their top draft picks rushed through the system, but they all came up to a team that set the world on fire en route to 95 wins in 2015 and won the World Series the next. To put that in perspective, most members of the Dodgers’ roster weren’t even alive the last time LA won a title.
It wasn’t a case of the Cubs waking up on third thinking they’d hit a triple, since the talent was obvious to anyone who watched. The problem was that everything came so easy — this goes for the front office and coaching staff as well — that it got to the point where players seemingly felt the postseason was their birthright.
“When your team has gone to the playoffs four years in a row and the NLCS three (times), almost three consecutive World Series, it’s hard to accuse them of lacking hunger,” Joe Maddon told ESPN back in August. “What I have seen this year is teams have caught up. It’s not the same sashay we’ve had to get there. It’s tougher. Other teams have gotten better.”
The issue with the Cubs isn’t that the players aren’t hungry, it’s that they’re not as hungry as other teams. They’re not slow, they’re just not running as fast as other teams. You can see a perfect example of this in their hard contact, which has actually improved in each of the past four seasons. However, the rest of Major League Baseball has increased at a higher rate and Cubs have remained below league average since 2015.
Daniel Descalso was brought in to sharpen that edge the Cubs lost, but that experiment flamed out quickly as the utility infielder became unplayable following an ankle injury. They took a flyer on Carlos González, who similarly flamed out. The bullpen has been in shambles all season, the aging rotation has little margin for error, and injuries robbed several key players of their punch.
“You feel like it’s the end of the world, you feel like everybody hates you, nobody wants to look at you,” Bryant told Sporting News about trying to recapture the magic of 2016. “It’s kind of hard to see those positive things.”
Admittedly harder on himself than any of his myriad critics, it’s not surprising Bryant would feel this way. The last two campaigns have seen him hampered by injuries — left shoulder, right knee, now a Grade 2 ankle sprain — that have sapped his power and consistency, yet his 134 wRC+ in 2019 — the second-lowest mark of his career — is still higher than Nolan Arenado has ever posted in a season. True though that may be, you can bet that doesn’t make Bryant feel much better about it.
Nor does it make the Cubs feel any better, especially since their disappointing effort this season will almost certainly bring a reckoning to both the roster and coaching staff. While it won’t make things more fun in and of itself, maybe missing the playoffs and getting pissed off about it will shake something loose. This could finally be the adversity most of these players have never really had to face.
Whatever happens this winter, I can guarantee you the 2020 season will be more fun to watch than 2019. In fact, I’m so confident in that proclamation that I’ll buy you a beer if I’m wrong. I win either way, because I’m either right and I don’t owe anyone or next year is so brutal it’ll suck the very life from my body and I won’t have to pay up. In all seriousness, this season set the bar so low that it’d be nearly impossible for the Cubs not to clear it with ease.
Unless, you know, they run the table here and blast through the postseason for another title. Because that could still happen, you know.