2021 Troubles Loom on the Chicago Cubs’ Horizon

PEORIA, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 24: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs draws a walk against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning of the MLB spring training game at Peoria Stadium on February 24, 2020 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PEORIA, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 24: Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs draws a walk against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning of the MLB spring training game at Peoria Stadium on February 24, 2020 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs are staring down the barrel of a rough 2021 campaign as their rebuilding process has already begun.

The Chicago Cubs are falling apart.

The past week and a half has been nothing short of a trade firestorm, stemming from San Diego to the Midwest, the East Coast and overseas.

Last week, the Padres acquired pitcher Yu Darvish and catcher Victor Caratini from Chicago, along with Rays ace Blake Snell and Korean baseball star Ha-Seong Kim.

On Thursday, yet another bombshell dropped: Cleveland staples Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco were headed to the Mets, a steal for New York in every sense of the word.

And, according to Bleacher Nation and SportsNet New York, the Mets have been involved in talks with the Cubs regarding Kris Bryant.

It’s a positive for the recipients of the completed transactions; in a year marred and shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Padres posted a 37-23 record, eliminated the Cardinals in three wild-card games and, despite being swept by the Dodgers in the divisional round, showed a lot of promise.

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The Mets, as expected, floundered. New York tied the Nationals and Rockies for the third-worst record in the National League and matched Washington’s 26-34 mark to tie for last in the NL East.

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away from San Diego and 800 from New York, Chicago is reeling. Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein, who helped guide the team to their 2016 World Series title and ended a 108-year championship drought, parted ways with the club in mid-November, and it’s been nothing but subtraction from the team ever since.

Trade talks surrounding the likes of Bryant, Javier Baez and others have swirled for several years now. Chicago only had Darvish for the equivalent of two-and-a-third seasons, lost Jose Quintana after 2020 and declined Jon Lester‘s option once the abbreviated season concluded.

Chicago also non-tendered outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. on December second, two players that had been in the Windy City for six and five years, respectively. Jason Kipnis also became a free agent when the 2020 season concluded.

Lester is still a free agent, as is Quintana. Kyle Hendricks is the only constant pitcher remaining from their ’16 rotation.

While Chicago won the NL Central in 2020, they ended up getting swept out of the opening wild card round by the Marlins. It’s been a downward trend ever since the World Series title of four seasons ago: Chicago lost the NL Championship Series the next year to Los Angeles, followed by a wild card elimination at the hands of the Rockies the next year.

The team didn’t even make the playoffs in 2019, but at first looked to be on the rebound in a weird 2020 season: winning 10 of their first 12 games, the Chicago Cubs recorded their best start since 1969, but quickly fell into inconsistency and a 24-24 mark through the remaining 48 contests before Miami dealt them a fatal blow in the playoffs.

Darvish was the Cubs’ ace and most consistent bright spot in 2020, though; fellow rotation members Hendricks and Alec Mills were solid, with Mills throwing a no-hitter in September, but Darvish’s excellence netted him a second-place finish in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

The Osaka native was masterful during his 12 games. Posting a 2.01 ERA, Darvish compiled an 8-3 record (his eight wins led the league) while striking out an average of 11 batters per nine innings.

Caratini, meanwhile, has been a mainstay on the Cubs’ roster the last four years. Though not a headline-maker as primarily a pinch hitter, as well as a backup catcher to Willson Contreras and a backup first baseman to Anthony Rizzo, Caratini caught Mills’ no-hitter in 2020 and has been a solid enough component during his tenure in Chicago, hitting 11 home runs in 2019 and driving in 34 runs that year.

The potential of losing Bryant has huge implications for the Chicago Cubs, as if Darvish’s departure wasn’t enough: it would mark the first big move of a player connected to the team’s young 2016 title-winning core.

Bryant, Baez and Rizzo were in some respects the “big three” of that championship team, and are essentially the centerpiece of what remains of it. Bryant received Rookie of the Year honors in 2015, backing that up with 39 home runs and an MVP award in 2016 (and, along with Rizzo, making the play that clinched the World Series title for Chicago).

Chicago Cubs
Chicago Cubs /

Chicago Cubs

In fairness, it was a miserable year for Bryant in 2020. Batting a dismal .206 (his previous career low was .272 in 2018), Bryant missed almost half of the team’s games, hit just four home runs and drove in 11 runs. A bright spot, though, was that two of his four homers came in back-to-back games that concluded the regular season.

This isn’t just about who the Cubs have traded or could trade, though. It’s about who they missed out on.

Outside of the ridiculous amount of players the team did not tender or sign, or even keeping their ace in Darvish, the Cubs have let trade opportunities sail by them and continue an inexplicable reluctance to make quality roster additions this offseason.

Tampa Bay was obviously shopping Snell. Lindor and Carrasco, both solid players in their own rights, might have fit right in with Chicago; while Baez is a shortstop by trade, he’s played his share of second base and could work with Lindor on that.

As for the ripple effects from the trade Chicago already completed, the Padres are seeing nothing but light at the end of the tunnel. After their playoff performance, it seemed that just a few puzzle pieces here and there were missing in order for the team to become a serious title contender, and a couple of those may have fallen into place.

With the addition of Darvish and Snell, the Padres’ rotation just gets stronger despite the loss of Zach Davies (7-4 in 2020); San Diego still has Dinelson Lamet (who had a 2.09 ERA in 12 starts).

San Diego could use a catcher like Caratini, too. The Padres cycled through five different catchers in their 60-game season in 2020, none of whom proved to be outright impactful.

Chicago waves goodbye to these players without a glimpse of what a season with Darvish and Hendricks on top of their games, a mostly healthy lineup and a full schedule with David Ross at the helm could have looked like.

The Padres ended up with a great deal in their trades with Chicago and Tampa Bay, the Mets may have finally begun to put to rest the memes and rebound under new owner Steve Cohen, and maybe – just maybe – Cleveland can recover from giving up two of their stars.

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The Chicago Cubs, though, remain in their trade-or-don’t-trade, wishy-washy purgatory. It’s going to take some major moves to bring back the magic of five years ago; maybe they need the mojo of celebrity fans like Bill Murray and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder to reignite that spark.