MILWAUKEE – Rolled up sheets of opaque plastic, secured to the ceiling of the American Family Field visitors clubhouse, sat in wake this weekend, ready to be unfurled in front of lockers for beer and champagne showers.
The celebration never came. The zip ties were still uncut Sunday evening as Cubs players meandered around the room saying their goodbyes. They exchanged hugs, words of encouragement, a set of offseason wedding invitations.
“Something I just voiced to everybody,” said star shortstop Dansby Swanson as he reflected on his first year as a Cub, “is I’m just so grateful and appreciative of how accepting everybody was just of me, and my personality, and treating me like we’ve always been together, which is so warming for coming to a new place.”
Over the last two days of the Cubs’ 83-79 season, as they came to terms with the finality of being officially eliminated, gratitude and disappointment seemed to be the prevailing emotions.
They blended together in a head-spinning cocktail as the uncertainty of the offseason loomed ahead. No matter what happens – whether the Cubs keep up with Cody Bellinger’s other free agency suiters or he gets a better offer elsewhere, whether Marcus Stroman opts out of his contract or stays in Chicago – it won’t be the same group next year.
“It was a big deal for us this year creating a winning culture and a close knit group, and we did that,” said catcher Yan Gomes, who has a club option for 2024. “We definitely did that. And … this is some of the most fun I’ve had being a part of an amazing organization and amazing group of guys. It’s tough. And I think we should be upset about it. I don’t think it’s something we’re just gonna blow off, but I think there’s a lot of things to learn from it too.”
That was part of the reason their collapse at the end stung so much. Despite all the talk the last couple weeks about no one expected the Cubs to be second-half contenders, the players and coaching staff always did.
“The only stat that ever mattered was the win and loss column,” Swanson said. “And, being able to establish that early was super important. And we have so many guys that believe in the right things and in the same things. We’ve just got to continue to grow and get better – individually, as a team, as an organization.”
There was reason for outside skepticism early in the year. Entering spring training, PECOTA projected the Cubs would win about 77 games this year.
It was unclear how bounce-back candidates like Cody Bellinger and Trey Mancini, to name a couple, would fare. Bellinger became the Cubs’ best hitter and put together his best season since his MVP year. Mancini was released in early August.
The bullpen was unproven. In the end, injuries poked holes in the Cubs’ back-end reliever depth. But the emergence of Adbert Alzolay as the closer, and Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather as setup men had the group playing above expectations in the middle of the year.
The team was built on pitching and defense. But who could have predicted that starting pitching would still be a strength with three of the pitchers in their Opening Day rotation coming out of the bullpen in September?
By early September, the Cubs had made believers out of their fans, and even postseason projection systems. They were on a trajectory to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Then it all fell apart.
“I don’t think that we want to start calling seasons we don’t make the playoffs good seasons,” chairman Tom Ricketts said. “That’s a consolation prize, and we don’t play for consolation prizes. With hat said, there were some great moments, some great performances, there was a lot of excitement, and the organizational health is as strong as it’s been a long, long time.
“So, with all the disappointment that we have, there’s a lot of optimism as well.”
Now, it’s the front office’s job to attack the offseason in a way that builds on that optimism.