The Cubs are sellers. They already traded Joc Pederson on Thursday, though statistically they had nearly as good a long-shot playoff chance as the club to which they dealt him, the Braves.
The floodgates are open. Kris Bryant and Zach Davies are very likely also to be dealt, Craig Kimbrel probably will be, as will Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo, should Chicago decide to shun nostalgic heart tugs and prioritize restocking a farm system (and lowering second-half payroll) as much as possible in the days before the July 30 non-waiver trade deadline.
Thus would end one of the greatest runs in Cubs history, a six-year period (2015-20) in which they made the playoffs five times and ended a 108-year title drought in 2016.
I wonder if that period could provide perspective for how we think about the Yankees. They have been uninterrupted contenders for nearly three decades. That may be over now, and I certainly have been among those excavating for reasons, digging to explain what has misfired in 2021 and why.
But I recognize that they have had only one July sell-off in this sustained run. That was 2016 when, among other deals, they traded Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs.
Chapman, in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, permitted a traumatic, dramatic two-run homer to Cleveland’s Rajai Davis to tie the score in the eighth. And the Cubs might only have won because of a well-timed, 17-minute rain delay after the ninth inning that allowed them to mentally regroup and become inspired by a hastily called team meeting headed by Jason Heyward.
The Cubs essentially earned their lone World Series victory since 1908 because they overcame a postseason homer allowed by Chapman — helped by a rain delay. The Yankees haven’t won since 2009, in part, because they could not overcome epic playoff homers allowed the past two years by Chapman, to Jose Altuve and Mike Brosseau.
That 2016 title was supposed to be a springboard to a Cubs dynasty. After all, they had a young nucleus built around Baez, Bryant, Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber. But that group was never really the same after 2016.
The Cubs have won one playoff round since, going 3-9 in that period. That does not include losing a one-game tiebreaker for the NL Central title to the Brewers in 2018 after collapsing to not win the division, and then losing the wild-card game 24 hours later to the Rockies. Both defeats came at Wrigley Field.
The season after the Cubs won, the Yankees went to Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS against the Astros. Did Houston cheat by illegally stealing signs to win? Regardless, this felt like the beginning of a Yankees dynasty built around a young positional core of Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez, with Gleyber Torres (acquired in the Chapman trade) due the following season. But the Yankees were never that good in health or success again, though they are 11-10 in the postseason since then.
One reason the Yankees have not done better is that they haven’t drafted or supplemented their starting pitching well enough and, arguably, began to lean too much on a homer-or-bust offensive philosophy, which began to increase strikeouts and reduce batting average.
Theo Epstein is the most successful baseball executive of this century and he had the same problems. Epstein ran the Cubs from 2012-20. From his drafts, there were 19 players who appeared in games in the first half of this year. Albert Almora (sixth-overall pick), Bryant (second), Schwarber (fourth) and Ian Happ (ninth) were his first four draft picks (2012) and represent higher choices than the Yankees have had since taking Derek Jeter sixth overall in 1992.
These are the other 15 of Epstein’s Cubs draft picks: Pierce Johnson, Duane Underwood, David Bote, Zack Godley, Justin Steele, Dylan Cease, James Norwood, Justin Vosler, Vimael Machin, P.J. Higgins, Zack Short, Alex Lange, Cory Abbott, Keegan Thompson and Nico Hoerner. The best, to date, is probably Cease, who was part of a failed trade with Eloy Jimenez to the White Sox for Jose Quintana — a starting pitching move that did not work out for Epstein and the Cubs.
Concurrently, on offense, the Cubs became a team that by last year — even in winning the NL Central in a shortened season — struck out one in every four plate appearances and had a .220 batting average.
This is not meant as disparagement of Epstein. He is a Hall of Fame executive by accomplishment between Boston and Chicago. It is just to accentuate how hard it is — even with great financial wherewithal and terrific brainpower — to win titles, much less to forge dynasties.
No team has won consecutive championships since the 1998-2000 three-peat Yankees. Perhaps the Dodgers will change that this year. They are the West Coast Yankees in their behemoth state. But until last season, the Dodgers had not won since 1988 despite billions of dollars spent. They captured the division from 2013-19 without a title, gaining a rep of not being able to win it all. Like the Yankees, perhaps they were a victim of the 2017 Astros cheating, just in the World Series.
But even with a terrifically run baseball operation, you see the Dodgers will face issues, such as aging team icons like Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw coming up on free agency after this season, prime core players approaching free agency (Corey Seager and Chris Taylor this offseason, Cody Bellinger and Julio Urias the one after) and a large signing gone wrong (Trevor Bauer).
The Yankees have navigated similar matters the past three decades and remained a playoff team most years and never less than a postseason contender. If that is over now, then perhaps the Cubs’ selloff offers a great tribute to just what the Yankees have been able to sustain.
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