A year after pivotal losing streak, Cubs still haven't gotten back on track (2024)

ST. LOUIS — One year ago, the Cubs lost a 6-2 game at Dodger Stadium that dropped them out of a first-place tie with the Brewers atop the National League Central. Still, Jake Arrieta pitched well that night, and the first six names in the lineup gave the team some swagger: Joc Pederson, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Ian Happ. The night before against the defending World Series champs, Zach Davies and three relievers threw the first combined no-hitter in franchise history. Jed Hoyer’s front office anticipated adding major-league talent at the trade deadline for one more playoff run with that group.

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That bold era of Cubs baseball — which marketed Bryzzo, El Mago and a potential dynasty — finally came crashing down with the 11-game losing streak that began June 25, 2021. If you hadn’t watched the long rebuild slowly play out across the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons — or the futility through most of the previous century — these Cubs would be unrecognizable right now.

From the first loss of the losing streak that became Hoyer’s tipping point, through Saturday afternoon’s 5-3 loss to the Cardinals in the 94-degree heat at Busch Stadium, the Cubs are 56-103 in the last calendar year. That stretch includes three double-digit losing streaks, 35 blowout losses, Major League Baseball’s 99-day lockout and no winning months (except for winning a three-game series in St. Louis on the first weekend of October last year to end the 2021 season amid a COVID-19 outbreak).

“I have a vision to build,” Hoyer said. “I know what we built last time. I have all the confidence in the world that we’re going to get there. But I also am aware that sometimes things speed up and sometimes things slow down. I’m not smart enough to know which of those is going to happen. But I do know — and I have the ultimate confidence — that we’re going to be successful. Just like I knew that same thing last time. It doesn’t make the day-to-day any easier.”

The 2022 Cubs began the season with a $143.4 million Opening Day payroll that ranked 14th out of the 30 major-league clubs, according to Baseball Prospectus/Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That same database estimated the cost of the 40-man roster to be $174.9 million, which moved the Cubs to 12th in terms of accounting for the competitive balance tax (CBT). Wrigley Field remains one of the most expensive ballpark experiences in baseball.

This close to free agency, Contreras has a clear-eyed view of a situation that, at times, seemed to distract Rizzo, Bryant and Báez last year. Happ is nearing that red zone as a homegrown player with only a season and a half of club control remaining. Chris Martin, Mychal Givens and David Robertson are this year’s versions of Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Craig Kimbrel, the three relievers who finished that no-hitter at Dodger Stadium and were traded away by last year’s deadline.

A year after pivotal losing streak, Cubs still haven't gotten back on track (1)

Reliever David Robertson could be on the move before the trading deadline. (Gregory Fisher / USA Today)

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney called the organization’s cost-cutting moves “a talking point” and “a false narrative,” defending the Ricketts family ownership group during Saturday’s appearance on 670 The Score, the team’s flagship radio station.

Kenney also referenced the concept of the savings account for baseball operations that Theo Epstein and Hoyer set up years ago. This is not standard operating procedure in the baseball industry, but the famous example became the Yankees outbidding the Cubs for Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka after the 2013 season. Epstein and Hoyer reallocated that money and pursued big-game pitcher Jon Lester, who signed a six-year, $155 million contract with a last-place team after the 2014 season and helped end the 108-year World Series drought.

“If you look at between 2016 and 2021, we rank fourth in all of baseball, only behind the Yankees, Dodgers and just a smidge behind the Red Sox,” Kenney said. “When we were in that championship window, we were one of the top spenders in baseball. And during those six years, we tripped the CBT penalty three times, including as late as 2020, (which) was a shortened season, obviously, but we were over the limit in ’19 as well. I go back now through Sam Zell and all the way back through Tribune (Co.). We’re so lucky that we have an owner that lets us spend when the time is right.

“Clearly, this year, we’ve taken a step back. And as I said, all the resources that weren’t used that would have pushed us up the ladder on the payroll chart this year will go into next year’s budget. So I feel really lucky that Tom (Ricketts) has never said like, ‘No, I don’t want to spend.’

“Yes, in this one single year, we’re back into the middle of the table. But if you look at any sort of reasonable length of time, we’re always in the top four or five.”

This is where the Cubs ranked in Opening Day payroll between 2012 and 2015, according to the Baseball Prospectus/Cot’s Baseball Contracts database: ninth, 14th, 19th and 13th.

The Cubs reacted to the COVID-19-related financial losses during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season by laying off 100-plus employees on the business and baseball sides of the organization. That austerity program led to the decision to cut Kyle Schwarber, who delivered a legendary performance during the 2016 World Series, rather than offer him a contract through the arbitration system. Economics also factored into the Yu Darvish trade with the Padres after the Cubs won a division title in 2020.

The post-World Series period is a reasonable amount of time to assess the franchise’s priorities. Cubs fans were led to believe that Marquee Sports Network would generate revenues to help land big-name free agents. Wrigley Field is fully modernized with video boards, VIP clubs and a surrounding corporate campus that includes Hotel Zachary, Budweiser Brickhouse Tavern, retail shops, rooftop buildings controlled by the team and a sportsbook opening next season.

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Last season’s collapse left no doubt that the Cubs needed major changes. A recent surge helped Báez push his batting average above .200 and his OPS over .600 in the first season of a six-year, $140 million contract with the Tigers. Colorado’s seven-year, $182 million investment in Bryant has so far yielded 73 plate appearances while he recovers from a back injury. Rizzo is a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium, though to this point he hasn’t topped the $70 million guarantee the Cubs offered in spring training last year.

In the meantime, the Cubs have 60 percent of their projected rotation — Marcus Stroman, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly — sidelined with injuries. The Cubs invested roughly $100 million in Seiya Suzuki, including the posting fee for his Japanese club, and he will eventually need a minor-league rehab assignment after spraining his left ring finger last month. Baseball operations is paying for the lack of depth and dynamic talent accumulated in recent years and feeling the effects of all those win-now trades.

“You saw where we were at, at the end of last year,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We needed to fill holes in the rotation. We went out and got three guys (who are now on the injured list). We needed to fill the holes in the middle of the lineup, and we went out and got Seiya. Well, those guys aren’t in there. We’re back to being a little thin.”

(Top photo of Jed Hoyer: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

A year after pivotal losing streak, Cubs still haven't gotten back on track (2)A year after pivotal losing streak, Cubs still haven't gotten back on track (3)

Patrick Mooney is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the Chicago Cubs. He spent eight seasons covering the Cubs across multiple platforms for NBC Sports Chicago/Comcast SportsNet, beginning in 2010. He has been a frequent contributor to MLB Network, Baseball America, MLB.com and the Chicago Sun-Times News Group. Follow Patrick on Twitter @PJ_Mooney

A year after pivotal losing streak, Cubs still haven't gotten back on track (2024)
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