Who, exactly, are the Chicago Cubs after embarrassing exit from the playoffs?

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist

CHICAGO – Introspection and baseball converge with the ease of two like-poled magnets. The sport, with its 162 games, its menagerie of minutiae, its necessity for on-the-fly change, actively discourages deep thought. Which made the scene after the National League wild-card game Tuesday night that much more incongruous. Their season over, their dream of another championship dead, the Chicago Cubs didn’t lament the Colorado Rockies’ 2-1 victory in 13 innings so much as they tried to answer a question familiar to anyone who has engaged in self-reflection: Who, exactly, are we?

There were no clear answers, not yet, which made the question that much more perplexing. Because the Cubs, two years removed from their first World Series victory in more than a century, a year separated from another NL Championship Series appearance, find themselves in baseball purgatory, believing everything’s going to be all right without knowing. Their manager is going to be a lame duck, and their farm system seems unlikely to provide a jolt of major league-ready talent, and their core – the same core that teemed with dynastic aspirations in 2016 – had just exited the 2018 postseason in spectacular fashion.

In a little more than 24 hours, the Cubs went from playing for home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs to packing up for the winter. It was a dizzying turn characterized by a showing of offensive impotence that bled from September into October. It was a fitting microcosm of the season, actually: handed opportunity after opportunity, the Cubs simply couldn’t muster the finishing kick that defined them two years ago when they secured their oversized gold-and-diamond rings in extra innings.

What’s next for the Chicago Cubs? (Getty Images)
What’s next for the Chicago Cubs? (Getty Images)

This was different. This was the Cubs shut out for seven innings by a pitcher making his first postseason start, on three days’ rest no less, before scratching across a run. This was inning after inning, every at-bat an opportunity to walk-off the Rockies and walk into a vengeance series with the Milwaukee Brewers, who had filched the NL Central crown a night earlier. This was a zero in the ninth, then 10th, then 11th, then 12th, all the way into the 13th, making it the longest win-or-go-home playoff game in baseball history. This was Tony Wolters, the Rockies’ third catcher of the game, driving in the winning run against Kyle Hendricks, the third starting pitcher the Cubs used in all their desperation. This was, more than anything, a reminder that while it’s impractical to glean too much from one game (or two or three or 10 or even 20), it would be likewise irresponsible to ignore how that game dovetailed with so many other similar ones – just two runs and nine hits in 22 innings over two days.

“Sometimes you need to get your [expletive] knocked in the dirt in order to appreciate where you’re at,” said Jon Lester, the Cubs’ starter who struck out nine Rockies in six superlative innings. “You know what? Maybe we needed that. Maybe we needed to get knocked down a peg or two to realize nothing’s going to be given to us.”

Lester is one of the Cubs’ spiritual leaders, a no-nonsense 34-year-old who admitted that his efforts to contextualize Tuesday night may have sounded overly positive. In Chicago, on sports-talk radio and Twitter and the other echo chambers of conflagrant hot-takery, the sky had been falling for months. Then it actually crashed Tuesday, and the Cubs were left piecing together the fallout. How team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer would respond, and whether manager Joe Maddon would manage the final year of his contract without a new deal, and why a season with so much promise went sour with such rapidity.

“It’s going to make everybody mad,” Lester said. “Make Theo mad, all these guys mad. There’s a huge free agent crop coming this year. But I don’t know if we need anybody. We need to get people healthy. We need to be right. We need to be the Cubs.”

Who, exactly, are the Cubs? They are Kris Bryant, who never looked right, his left shoulder a mess. They are Javier Báez, who filled that superstar slot with aplomb. They are Anthony Rizzo, their heartbeat. They are Willson Contreras, whose postgame tears were the furthest thing from crocodile. They are Lester and Hendricks and José Quintana, the base of a strong starting rotation.

They are also Jason Heyward for five more years and Yu Darvish for five more years and Tyler Chatwood for two more years. The three will make more than $50 million next season alone. They are a team that preaches culture – and still has a player in the middle of a must-win game sitting in the clubhouse and scrolling through an iPad, much to the chagrin of others in the dugout who were living and dying with every pitch. They are in that awkward place where they need to start considering the future as well as the present, lest the latter bleed into the former and cause the chaos spiral of other successful franchises that lost sight of their window and watched it slam on their fingers.

The sentiment in the clubhouse, at least, was that wholesale change would be unnecessary. “I honestly don’t anticipate a lot,” Maddon said, and his sentiments were echoed by those who saw the injuries to Darvish and Bryant and closer Brandon Morrow and imagined how much better a 95-win team would be with them at full strength. And that’s true, all well and good in a hypothetical world, but injury-free seasons are a pipe dream, and such considerations must be baked in to any rational assessment of the future.

Baez talked about the Cubs needing to play more as a team, and, OK, fine. That may be true, but it’s too difficult to quantify for anyone outside of the room to know. And Heyward said the season wasn’t a success because the Cubs didn’t pop any bottles in celebration, which, sure, even if the reality that October is a crapshoot renders most World Series-or-bust sentiment just blather. And Rizzo planted his flag for Maddon, saying that “without his leadership, guys aren’t playing the way they play” and that “Joe’s best year was this year as far as managing all the moving parts,” which doesn’t sound like the sort of talk from a guy who expects to be playing for a new manager next year, even if the Cubs do have as much cover as they ever will should they move to replace him.

“I love this team,” Rizzo said. “I’ve loved this team from Day 1. We lost to teams that were better than us. That’s all you can say. We fell short.”

Distilling 4 hours, 55 minutes of baseball – alternately taut and slogging, a good proxy itself for the 2018 season – into something grander in the immediate aftermath is no easy task. There was a sadness, but not a crushing one. There were backslaps and hugs, but room still for smiles. There was failure, but amid it sanguinity.

“Our guys give a [expletive],” Lester said. “That’s what’s hard to portray. I would hope that the fans understand that. I hope the fans see that. I feel like you can’t portray that enough.”

Caring goes only so far when the feeling from that victory two years ago is still almost corporeal – there to be touched, savored, owned. It’s addictive. It’s maddening. It rewires sporting DNA. It’s why this feels like a crossroads for the Cubs, even if it’s just a stop sign. Pause, look both directions, assess things, plow ahead. Don’t complicate it.

That’s the path the Cubs will forge as they try to answer that imperative question of who, exactly, they are. They have a pretty good idea. There have been losses and ill-advised moves, but they’re still an exquisitely well-run organization with an enviable base of talent. The kind that won 95 games this year. The kind that, with some tweaks rather than overhauls, can imagine next October with one magnet flipped, the opposite poles facing one another, everything coming together just as planned.

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