Every thriving entity has a peak. The Romans had the Pax Romana. Napoleon had the Battle of Austerlitz. The Simpsons had the Who Shot Mr. Burns? cliffhanger. For the early 21st-century Cubs, it was Michael Martinez grounding out on a gentle November day, giving the team its first World Series championship since 1908. Moistened by celebratory alcohol, this was almost certainly the peak for all these Cubs, and also a second championship probably would not touch the magic of the moment.
Since 2016, the Cubs completed each season a little less efficiently than the prior one. The 2017 team dropped four to the Dodgers in the NLCS, and the 2018 team’s finish came in a wild card game against the Colorado Rockies. The 2019 team did not even make it into October.
The club dynasty was constructed on growing players from inside and utilizing their big-market financial heft to play free agency. Both of these ingredients have faded into the background in recent years as the team’s farm system has been weakened from trades and graduations while ownership has increasingly embraced a more frugal financial strategy. The Cubs are a team in decline, to the point at which they are any old NL Central competition, not a behemoth pushing around the Cardinals or Brewers or Reds.
The silver lining is that decrease can take a little while. As my colleague Craig Edwards mentioned in a recent bit, the Cubs still have a very powerful core, despite their uninspiring 84-78 record. The decrease is not necessarily collapsed. The Roman Empire limped on for 300 years after Marcus Aurelius, and the Byzantine offshoot lasted more than a century. It required a decade after the Treaty of Tilsit to eliminate Napoleon for great. The Simpsons had memorable episodes for a very long time after its peak, and presumably, someone remains watching the series, currently in its 31st season.
The existing Cubs are not done, but you can see the finish on the horizon.
Can there be such a thing as a humiliating 95-win season? When there is, the 2018 Cubs may have been the best example of this. After spending the first few months poking around the .500 mark, the Cubs jumped to reclaim first place in July. In early September, the team started a five-game lead to the NL Central and had pulled to within a game of the Dodgers for the best record in the National League. Then they collapsed without actually collapsing, blowing off the divisional lead even though a respectable 16-12 September record. The Brewers went 19-7 that month, linking the Cubs for first place on the last day of this season. After two weeks of company control, it required the Cubs only one game to eliminate the branch and then another reduction to finish their season.
Faced with a branch they could not dominate, the Cubs had a quiet offseason that year. Just two players making more than a thousand dollars were signed in the winter in Daniel Descalso and Brad Brach. After ranking 10th in the majors in positional WAR and 14th in hurling WAR in 2018, the team spent the offseason just tinkering slightly around the edges. After the Cardinals acquired Paul Goldschmidt, the Cubs’ answer was to cheerfully announce that they had been from money.
The Cubs didn’t make up for the lack of investment by making trades. Rowan Wick, acquired from the Padres in a silent November deal, turned out to be a wonderful addition, however, Rowan Wick was not likely to ascertain the fate of this 2019 Cubs.