When the Chicago White Sox dealt popular third baseman Jake Burger to the Miami Marlins at the trade deadline, sending Sox fans into a tizzy, no one could have predicted it also would be a death knell for the Cubs.
Burger helped lead the Marlins past the Cubs in the wild-card race, hitting .306 with nine home runs, 28 RBIs and an .871 OPS in 52 games heading into Sunday’s finale. The Marlins went 18-9 from Aug. 31 on, clinching the spot and eliminating the slip-sliding Cubs on Saturday.
White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams was fired shortly after consummating the deal with Marlins general manager Kim Ng. His firing had nothing to do with the trade, but in the end Williams not only helped an old friend from the Sox organization in Ng, but also helped deliver the eventual knockout blow to the Cubs.
While Williams is toasting himself, Sox and Cubs fans can do a slow burn.
The Burger Effect was a fitting epitaph for this unique season of Chicago baseball, in which the Sox lost 101 games in the worst year in memory and the Cubs blew a wild-card spot with an epic collapse after one of the more entertaining summers in recent years.
Where they go from here remains to be seen, but the regime change in the Sox front office and the Cubs’ decision on whether to pay Cody Bellinger will make this an intriguing offseason.
The Cubs could use 2023 as a steppingstone if President Jed Hoyer makes the right moves, which includes re-signing Bellinger, his most valuable player. Bellinger gave no indication he would be back and sounded like a man who was grateful for the love but wanted to reap his just rewards.
“I had a great experience,” he said. “Love Wrigley Field. It’s a beautiful place. They’re great fans, very passionate, very loyal, and I had a really great time playing for the Cubs organization and Wrigley FIeld.”
This was not built to be “the next great Cubs team.” There were too many players on their last legs, including Trey Mancini, Eric Hosmer and Tucker Barnhart — all of whom were released — and a bullpen constructed on a wing and a prayer. It worked until it didn’t, and when closer Adbert Alzolay went down with a forearm strain in the stretch run, Ross could not find the right formula.
Inserting Marcus Stroman into the rotation after his quick comeback from fractured right rib cartilage was a head-scratching decision that will be debated whenever Cubologists look for clues to what happened in September 2023.
Until then, this looked like one of those dream seasons in which a Cubs team shocks the world. I ran into former Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston in early September when they still were looking good, and we talked about their resemblance to the 1989 “Boys of Zimmer.”
Every game seemed like life or death that season. Manager Don Zimmer was a focus for his unconventional moves. And the core was bigger than any individual.
“At least they’re not losing 10 games and then winning 10 games like we did,” Dunston said with a laugh. “They’re a little more consistent. I like the way they play. They play hard and it’s not about one person. It’s about the whole team.
“When you win, it’s not about one guy. We had two Hall of Famers in Andre (Dawson) and (Ryne Sandberg), and it was never about them. That’s how we learned from them, and these Cubs are the same way.”
Those ‘89 Cubs included a third Hall of Famer in Greg Maddux. But Dunston’s point was right. The ‘89 Cubs were not a great team but one that played together and sacrificed for each other. The ‘23 Cubs did that for a long stretch until they ran out of gas.
The failure to get into the postseason when it was in their hands makes this Cubs season certified rotten, so all the great things that happened — such as Christopher Morel’s walk-off against the Sox, the emergence of ace Justin Steele and Stroman’s first-half dominance — were ultimately wasted.
“As we talk, it stings a lot just knowing we did so much right and put in so much hard work to get in a position where we had a really strong chance of going to the postseason,” second baseman Nico Hoerner said. “To come up short down the last couple weeks, it definitely hurts.
“That can be a valuable feeling, too, just in knowing how difficult it is to do it through the entire 162 (games) and make it happen, not just in the wild card but division championships in the future. And that really being the standard.
“How that relates to my next couple years here, it hurts right now but makes it that much more exciting and hopefully that much more satisfying when we reach those things.”
The Cubs are much closer to being successful than the Sox, who have a big decision to make on Tim Anderson, the onetime face of the franchise who lost his power and perhaps his mojo. Letting Anderson go — or picking up his option and dealing him — would signify the start of a new era.
General manager Chris Getz knows he needs to change the culture in the Sox clubhouse and intends to build a contending team in one season. He said there are no untouchables, though Luis Robert Jr. certainly would be close if Getz hopes to fast-forward the plan.
Everyone will be pointing to the success of the Baltimore Orioles, who lost 110 games in 2021 and won 101 this season, an amazing two-year turnaround. Ross already compared his ‘23 Cubs to the ‘22 O’s, and the Sox can look to Baltimore for inspiration as well.
Of course the well-executed rebuild in Baltimore started during a 115-loss season in 2018 and took a lot of patience, strong drafting and developing of players.
Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said he’s too old to wait for a slow-motion rebound, and he apparently doesn’t intend to sell the team anytime soon, much to the dismay of Sox fans.
So a nightmarish season for the Sox is over, along with a horrendous ending for the Cubs. We all survived. It’s what we do best, knowing there’s always next year.
When it comes to its baseball, Chicago is a place where next year is just a dream away.