By Dan Freedman
The 2021 season could have been the last hurrah for the core of the Chicago Cubs team that brought the organization its first World Series crown in 108 years.
Most of their aging group was headed into free agency and ownership hadn’t shown any real interest in contract extensions, but they might have had one final push in them. And yet, one might argue that the powers-that-be conceded the season before it started, trading ace Yu Darvish to the Padres right before New Year’s Eve.
In return, the Cubs got a serviceable starter (Zach Davies, 9.7 career WAR) and a bunch of prospects. Forget Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, and Javy Báez; in the minds of the front office, the rebuild had begun.
But then a funny thing happened: the core played well. By the time I arrived at Wrigley Field on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the Cubs were only half-a- game back of the Cardinals and were two-and-a-half up on the Brewers. Had the standings changed the rubric for the season? Well, there was still a lot of baseball to be played.
My first trip to Wrigley this season was a portent of things to come. Rizzo was out with back spasms, so Bryant spelled him at first. He proceeded to make a first-inning error that allowed two unearned runs.
Jake Arrieta was on the hill (sporting a 5-4 record and a still respectable 4.37 ERA). He threw 89 pitches over 3 2/3 and left trailing, 5-0. He took the loss (the first of eight straight with no further wins) in an eventual 5-1 game. But the Cardinals also lost, so the Cubs entered the new week still only a half-game out.
My next sojourn to Wrigley was just over three weeks later. A lot had changed in the standings, but not for the Cubs. The Cards had fallen 3½ back – to the Cubs and the fast-rising Brewers, both of whom shared the division lead.
The Cubs had Kyle Hendricks on the hill with his sub-four ERA and 9-4 record. He did not disappoint against the soon-to-be Cleveland Guardians, throwing six scoreless en route to a rollicking rendition of “Go Cubs Go.” The Brewers also won that night, so the Cubbies put their heads on their pillows still tied for first place.
Just about five weeks out from the trade deadline, the Cubs’ players were throwing sand in the gears of ownership’s fire-sale plans, competing for a division without their best pitcher, but with Rizzo still periodically slowed by back issues. On this day, the Bryant/Báez/Contreras combo went 4-for-11 with a double and two home runs. Closer Craig Kimbrel wasn’t even needed. Despite the front office’s plans, those guys were not ready to give up hope.
Well, they should have been. Because after that 7-1 win over Cleveland, the Cubs proceeded to go 1-8 and fall 8½ games back.
I left Wrigley elated but 11 days later, the team’s season was essentially over. And yet, the worst was still to come!
There is really no need to rehash what the Cubs did prior to the July 30th deadline. But, to summarize, from the time I watched them “Fly the W” in June until the deadline, the Cubs went 10-22 and traded Bryant, Báez, Rizzo, and Craig Kimbrel. The kicker: all of them may be playing in the post-season, with Kimbrel likely to do so on the South Side of Chicago.
When I cruised into Wrigleyville last week, the Cubs were in fourth place, 16½ games behind the Brewers. That is correct: the Lovables went from tied for the division lead to 11 games under .500 and 5½ games back of third place. Oh, how the not-so-mighty-to-begin-with had fallen!
Fittingly, traffic from O’Hare delayed my arrival, and by the time I got to the press gate for trip number three, it was already 7-0 Brewers. And by the time the front office informed me that my press pass had been denied (apparently they didn’t like my calling out their 2016 acquisition of Aroldis Chapman), heavy rain was in the forecast.
So I decided to walk around the neighborhood and take in the sounds – if not the sights – of the game. I listened to Corbin Burnes tie a MLB record with 10 straight Ks. Willson Contreras was still in the lineup, and Jake Arrieta was still on the mound, but other than that, the team on the field that night was unrecognizable.
Sure, Ian Happ played in both of the other games I attended; but not even Patrick Wisdom was in the lineup this Wednesday night. There is no doubt that striking out 10 players in a row is impressive at any level of baseball, but I think Burnes may need an asterisk when you consider his victims (in order): Frank Schwindel, Matt Duffy, Greg Deichmann, David Bote, Andrew Romine, Jake Arrieta, Rafael Ortega, Willson Contreras (impressive, but still sporting a 29% K/rate this season), Ian Happ (striking out in 30% of his 2021 plate appearances, including in 18 of his previous 38 entering this game), and Schwindel once again.
Matt Duffy swung at the first pitch to avoid being number 11 – singling to right – before Deichmann became the 11th out of 12. Noteworthy, yes; but not exactly facing the ‘27 Yanks.
Within three days of my second trip to Chicago, the Cubs embarked on an 11-game losing streak. By the time I got back again, they were in the midst of a 12-gamer, being outscored 101-43. And, as of just a few days ago, according to Stathead, the Cubs have been outscored by 114 runs in their last 45 games, which is their worst run differential in any 45-game span within a season since 1900. So, yeah, the worst was still to come.
There are two interesting (?) codas to my third trip to Wrigley:
(1) The rain never came, so I missed out on a chance to watch the remainder of the 10-0 bloodbath in person. I am not sure if this is good news or bad.
(2) After the game, the Cubs unconditionally waived Arrieta*. Not sure this is too shocking in that he left with a 6.88 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, 6.12 FIP, and a 59 ERA+ (meaning he was 41% below average). And yet, it may not have been his performance on the mound that served as the final straw.
After the game, the anti-vaxxer who had given up 8 runs in 4 innings to take his 11th loss of the season asked a reporter to remove his mask, opining that he (Arrieta) didn’t think there was anyone around him (the reporter). So, in addition to being a below-average pitcher, and a below-average epidemiologist, he is also a below-average human being, seeing as he called out a reporter for acting responsibly while the delta variant is running rampant, and while the Cubs remain below the 85% vaccination threshold prescribed by MLB.
Sure, Arrieta was nearly unhittable in 2015 (he won the Cy Young with a 1.77 ERA, .865 WHIP, and a 215 ERA+). And sure, he was instrumental in the Cubs’ 2016 World Series championship. But all good things must end. With Arrieta, and with the Cubs, they had to end badly.
People – myself included – will still flock to Clark and Addison to visit that National Historical Landmark. We will still pose for pictures in front of the Ernie Banks and Harry Caray statues. We will still drink Old Style in the bleachers and enjoy a sun-drenched day on the shores of Lake Michigan. And maybe, over the course of the next few years, we will occasionally get to sing “Go Cubs Go.” But with the teardown nearly complete, with the rebuild in full swing, with a Quad-A team on the field each night, it is more likely than not that we will be hearing a whole lot more of “There’s always next year.”
A one, a two, a three…
*Upon his release, Arietta signed with the Padres, and proceeded to give up 5 ER in 3 1/3 innings to earn his 12th loss of the season.
Dan Freedman is the Executive Vice President of Business & Legal Affairs at Lionsgate Films. His writing about baseball stems from his unique (?) perspective on the game, his desire for people to love the game as much as he does, and how the game oftentimes relates to life. His musings can be found at www.baseballcraziness.com. Follow him on Twitter @dffreedman. or write firstname.lastname@example.org.
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