It was about an hour before the MLB trade deadline on Friday afternoon. Kyle Hendricks walked to the outfield on the visitors side of Nationals Park to play catch as he always does the day before he starts. By the time he returned to the Chicago Cubs clubhouse, the team he helped lead to the 2016 World Series title was unrecognizable.
It had been gutted.
“I didn’t know the whole scope until I got back in,” Hendricks said over the weekend. “It’s definitely been really tough. Still is. It’s going to take a while to process. It’s just very different around here without those guys. It was a crazy 24 hours. Still probably processing it all. It’s going to take a while.”
Hendricks and the few remaining holdovers from a team that ended the franchise’s 108-year title drought are starting over. But does that mean the Cubs are again in full rebuild mode, with years of mediocrity in front of them? Or does president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer have a quicker plan?
While his trade-deadline actions seem to put the former strategy in play, he says it’s actually the opposite: The dramatic July teardown of the Cubs will hasten their return to glory.
Understanding the team’s future begins by understanding what led up to dealing away four star players. It was years in the making.
‘You don’t let a crisis go to waste’
A sequence of events — some brought on by the Cubs themselves and some the price of going for it almost every year — left Hoyer with little choice. That included:
• The Cubs’ inability to sign any of their core players other than Hendricks to long-term deals. It’s a sore spot both with Hoyer and former executive Theo Epstein. They believe they made fair offers, but were rejected at every turn.
“That will probably be my greatest source of frustration from this era,” Hoyer said on Chicago radio Monday morning.
• Because of the nature of the Cubs’ rebuild, many key players were on the same arbitration clock. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and others started to get expensive at the same time, and all were about to hit free agency.
• The Cubs never produced the next wave of talent behind their 2016 champs, especially on the mound, meaning the team’s continued success was dependent on the same group.
They traded away the best young talent they did have to plug holes while attempting to sustain a winning window. Meanwhile, the players who won a championship never found that level again, and it was only magnified by the lack of reinforcements to the lineup and rotation.
• The organization stopped spending. After Yu Darvish came to Chicago on a six-year deal before the 2018 season, the only significant offseason signing was Craig Kimbrel’s three-year, $43 million contract and that happened only after Ben Zobrist’s non-paid leave freed up some payroll. The Cubs subsequently jettisoned Darvish — and the $59 million remaining on his $126 million contract — just when he was pitching his best. During the pandemic, ownership stated they were suffering “biblical losses” and subtracted from a 2020 playoff team instead of adding to it.
• Finally, the team set itself up for this very deadline position by compiling a roster full of upcoming free agents. Darvish was replaced by Zach Davies, who is at the end of his six-year arc of team control. Joc Pederson signed a one-year deals, as did Trevor Williams and Jake Arrieta. When the team fell out of the race, Hoyer was left to either make the moves he made last week or risk having half the roster leave at season’s end with nothing to show for it.
“You don’t let a crisis go to waste,” Hoyer said after the deadline Friday. “There is no reason to go halfway.”
With all that in mind, Hoyer went into the deadline knowing that committing to trading one core player meant committing to the possibility of trading them all. He just needed to hear the right return for Bryant, Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Kimbrel.
“With each trade, we targeted players we really liked and we wouldn’t move from that position,” he said. “Was it emotionally difficult? Yes. Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do.”
How does this compare to the last rebuild?
Late in 2011, Hoyer and his former boss, Epstein, chose a direction for the franchise that eventually led to a World Series title. In part, because of changes to the collective bargaining agreement, the pair decided a complete strip down was the way to go and they set out to build their team from the ground up — even if it took bottoming out to get there.
While Friday’s moves look like the beginning of a similar plan, Hoyer hasn’t committed to anything other than taking advantage of a roster full of free agents.
“I actually think we sped things up a lot over the past few days,” Hoyer said. “We’ll sit down and figure out how we’re going to build the next great Cubs team. I don’t care about looking like you’re competing or finishing in second place. I care about trying to win championships.”
Even so, it’s jarring to see such a talented group of players all gone in a 24-hour span. Especially in contrast to what another team in the same division with a similar record, the St. Louis Cardinals, did — or didn’t do — at the deadline. Despite not living up to the expectations set when they acquired Nolan Arenado this winter, St. Louis resisted the urge to subtract from its roster and garner prospects. In fact, the Cardinals added around the edges by trading for veteran starters J.A. Happ and Jon Lester.
“Overall, we still want to compete,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. “Hopefully we can get on that run and make a little noise, still in the Central … We still believe in this team but we also believe in where we’re going next year so that was critical in our decision-making.”
The Cardinals also have little hope of catching the Milwaukee Brewers this season, but Mozeliak’s strategy is to keep pushing forward while the Cubs are resetting.
“Obviously, a lot different approach, but they were in a place where they had a lot of expiring contracts,” Mozeliak said. “You have one team that’s turned the page now to 2022 and there’s a few of us still worried about 2021.”
Now the question is when will the Cubs again field a team that can compete with those Cardinals and Brewers atop the division again.
“The goal is how do we build the next great Cubs team, not how do we build the next OK Cubs team,” Hoyer said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do yet, so no one knows what we’re going to do yet.
“The obvious thing here is to compare things to what we did before.”
But Hoyer insists they’re not repeating 2012. They infused an improving farm system with 11 new faces over the past few weeks, plus they have four more from the Darvish trade.
Will they sign one of the many free-agent shortstops available this offseason to hasten the process? Will they flip some of the prospects they just acquired for major league talent? Or perhaps the longer approach will be necessary again. The blueprint hasn’t been drawn up yet.
“That path might mean letting the garden grow for a long time because you need to let those prospects mature,” Hoyer said. “And sometimes it may mean accelerating it through free agency.”
There are some pieces already in place. Nick Madrigal, acquired in trading Kimbrel to the White Sox, joins 2018 first-round pick Nico Hoerner as infield cornerstones. Catcher Willson Contreras said over the weekend that he would love to stick around and Hendricks is signed through 2024. The Cubs will try out some young pitchers over the next two months in hopes of building the rest of the rotation instead of buying one.
“We trust the people around us,” Hendricks said. “Whatever the plan is, obviously, they have a plan in place. We’re just going to trust that.
“It’s unclear where we’re headed but I know it’s all going to be for the better in the end.”
Asked if there was an interesting trade story from a frenzied several weeks leading up to the deadline, Hoyer paused and spun it forward instead.
“I don’t want to be on that side [subtracting] of the transaction,” he responded. “That’s the thing I would say the most. I have a lot of respect for the teams we dealt with. They were willing to go for it. And that’s what you should do.”