As the Cardinals were rolling past the Brewers in the 2011 NLCS, on their way to their 11th World Series championship and the sunset of the La Russa / Pujols era, the Cubs finalized the deal that would bring Theo Epstein in to remake their organization.
The rebuild began in earnest, with the Cubs trading off what little assets they had and losing-on-purpose to ensure several years of Top 10 draft picks. The major league team was still no good, but the prospects piled up and a winning team could be seen charging over the horizon.
That winning team arrived a little sooner than expected in 2015, vanquishing the Cardinals and going all the way to the NLCS. The 2016 Cubs were a juggernaut, finally delivering a championship. The word “dynasty” came easy. Sports Illustrated even dropped a little Buster Olney reference by calling Game 7 the first night of the Cubs dynasty.
2017 has brought with it what some dubbed a "Championship hangover,” and the Cubs sit on the verge of elimination in the NLCS. That’s no great failure, in and of itself, and 2017 would still have to be considered a great success for organization.
But I’m no longer worried about this Cubs team becoming a dynasty.
I’ll admit, I’m lowering the bar to an Undisputed-level argument here. We could flash “Are da Cubs a dynasty?” on your screens and let Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharp yell at each other about it for the next 90 seconds. But underneath the semantic argument of what a dynasty is, I think there is a reality that the Cubs look very diminished from what we feared they would be even just one year ago.
The Cubs have clearly build a championship-caliber team. But whereas a couple years ago, they looked like one that would continue to replenish with home-grown talent and spendy free agent acquisitions, they are beginning to look more like just the winning end of an organization on the tanking/winning cycle.
Coming into 2016, most outlets had the Cubs as the top farm system in terms of talent. At the start of last season, they’d dropped to 16th - exactly middle-of-the-pack in Minor League Ball’s rankings. As 2017 comes to a close, they have zero players in the MLB Pipeline Top 100 and seem likely to be ranked at the very bottom of the organizational rankings.
It’s no surprise to see an organization fluctuate in the rankings as they graduate top talent to the majors and trade away others as their major league team is pushing for a championship. But the degree to which the Cubs have emptied the cupboard is still pretty stunning.
The last of their top prospects to go, Eloy Jimenez, did net them a cost-controlled Jose Quintana for several years, but many of their prospects have been swapped for one-year (or less) rentals. A viable strategy, to be sure, and especially defensible as the organization sought to finally get the World Series monkey off its back. But it’s very much been the approach of a team looking to exploit a brief “win now” window rather than build a perpetual-motion machine.
From 2011 to 2015, they had a Top 10 draft pick every year, and their success rate on those was remarkable: Baez (pre-Epstein), Almora, Bryant, Schwarber, Happ. Each is in the majors now. But in 2016, they had no 1st-round pick at all, and won’t pick at the top of the draft in the next few years. As formidable as most of those guys remain, there is no longer a string of prospects waiting behind them.
Talent acquisitions in the near future will need to come via the free agent market, which in and of itself isn’t a total disaster, as the most recent Forbes list had the Cubs as the 6th most valuable team in the league. But with Bryant, Hendricks and Russell entering arbitration, and a clear need to sign probably two starting pitchers, the team’s payroll could crack the Top 3 as early as this season.
With those arg-eligible players salaries continuing to rise, along with Baez, Schwarber and others joining them soon, the Cubs are likely only a couple years away from bumping into the luxury tax, the point where most organizations cap their spending.
The team still has that core of position players that are the envy of most every organization in the league, but cost of that core is now beginning to ascend to market value. Outside of that core, they need to acquire more talent, and recent attempts to do so have not always been fruitful. Jason Heyward posted just 0.9 WAR in Year Two of his giant deal. Ben Zobrist has entered the expected decline years of his deal. Even the ever-steady Jon Lester looked to be showing his age at times this season. John Lackey and Jake Arrieta are both free agents.
By at least one measure, the Cubs were already the least-homegrown team in this year’s playoffs. That trend is only going to continue.
There’s no question that Epstein and Co. built a formidable team, and even if they do bow out softly in this year’s NLCS, they still look to be a top-contender heading into next season. But for all the talk of transforming the organization and building a dynasty, the Cubs look more and more to me like a team that simply went through a pretty standard rebuild - one that they were lucky enough to supplement with a sizable free agent budget.
This Cubs team looks like it has already peaked. While I expect them to remain very competitive in the near term, the trend has to be downward, and within a few years, they seem likely to go back to being just, well… the Cubs.