Demoralizing loss in Milwaukee frees Cubs from burden of trying to contend in 2021

The Cubs — to borrow a long-ago quote from Dennis Green about a different Chicago team — were who we thought they were. And the players just let the front office off the hook. 

Technically, sure, Wednesday’s loss to the Brewers was just one loss in a 162-game season. 

But it sure felt like a defining moment — and not in a good way — didn’t it? The Cubs scored seven runs in the top of the first inning against the Brewers, the red-hot division rival that recently wrestled away control of the NL Central. The Cubs needed this game to stay within shouting distance. They needed anything positive, really. 

They’d lost five in a row, including the first two games of the series in Milwaukee — blown out in the first one (14-4) and snuck by in the second (2-1) — and had fallen five games behind the Brewers in the division. They led the division, you’ll probably remember, by a game as recently as June 18. 

So that first inning felt almost cathartic. At least something finally was going right. 

Until it wasn’t. The Brewers scored one in the first and five in the second, chasing starter Jake Arrieta. Though it’s not really his fault, Arrieta is symbolic of this Cubs club, the contrast between what they once were — what they might have thought they still were — and what they actually are now. Arrieta will forever be a Cubs legend for his incredible Cy Young season in 2015 and his role in helping the franchise win its long-awaited World Series title in 2016. 

But he’s 35 now, and he’s not the same. The right-hander reunited with the Cubs this offseason, a short-term deal that was fueled by nostalgic reasons for both parties. After letting Jon Lester go and trading away ace Yu Darvish — part of an offseason of activity of a team not exactly trying to contend — the Cubs needed someone to join the rotation, preferably someone the fans would enjoy seeing. Arrieta was the choice, despite a 4.75 ERA/4.83 FIP and 7.1 K/9 his last two years with the Phillies. In his first four full seasons with the Cubs (2014-17), Arrieta owned a 2.67 ERA, 3.04 FIP and 9.1 K/9.

Failing to hold onto a lead and failing to last past the second inning in what just might have been the most important game of the year feels unavoidably symbolic. In 2021, Arrieta no longer is a Cy Young contender, just like the Cubs aren’t legitimate playoff contenders. 

The Brewers scored eight times in the fourth inning and wound up winning the game in a rout, 15-7.

Imagine losing by eight runs in a game where you once held a seven-run lead. And imagine that loss being the third in a row against the team you’re directly chasing in the standings. Now, imagine that being the sixth loss in a row overall and the 12th in the past 16 games.

Doesn’t take much to imagine this is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. 

And maybe, in the long run, that’s a good thing for the Cubs. There’s a reason the front office spent the entire offseason acting like a team with no real intentions of competing for a division title, much less a World Series crown. They looked at their roster, with the reality of contract situations at hand, and decided it would be better to try and reload a bit for the future, instead of loading up with reinforcements for one last run with the franchise icons. Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo are all free agents after the season. 

And not only did they ship out Darvish and pay Lester $10 million to go away, but they cut ties with Kyle Schwarber — he clearly isn’t done as an elite power hitter — and the people they brought back were Arrieta-esque. We talked about this at length at the beginning of June, a month we all knew would be defining. 

The Cubs had gone 19-8 in May, vaulting to the top of the division. Doesn’t matter what the offseason plan was, no team could actually be sellers when they’re leading a division or close to that lead, right? The White Sox won a World Series title in 2005 and are contenders for the title again this year, but nobody has really ever forgiven them for the “white flag” deal of 1997, when the Sox traded two of their best starting pitchers and their closer to the Giants in late July for a handful of prospects despite being only 3 1/2 back in the division. They finished in second, 6 games back.

But now, it’s hard to see any Cubs fan getting too upset if the club pulls the plug on contending in 2021. June has been a disaster — yet another chapter in the franchise’s infamous June Swoon book — and they’re now 42-39, six games behind the Brewers (48-33). The gap between the two clubs feels much larger that that, though. Because the NL West is top-heavy with the Giants (50-29), Dodgers (49-31) and Padres (49-33) owning the top three records in the NL, trying for the second wild-card spot is daunting, too. 

Now, the front office is free from the burden of trying to improve the 2021 club’s chances of contending without decimating the farm system. Jed Hoyer, the president of baseball operations, no longer needs to be consumed with analyzing the market to find potential diamonds in the rough, players who might exceed expectations and spark a playoff push. 

Hoyer and company can focus on the longer-term future of the club. In a trade market that is long on demand and short on supply, his team suddenly can be sellers, with guys like Baez, Rizzo and Bryant potentially bringing back significant longer-term upgrades. And he can trade Craig Kimbrel, his dominating closer who has a team option for 2022. What World Series contender wouldn’t want to add him to its bullpen? 

Yep, the front office is off the “we have to contend” hook. Wednesday’s disaster/debacle/drubbing will allow the Cubs to pick up where they left off this offseason. Finally. 

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