Wittenmyer: Don’t blame Zach Davies for Cubs woes; blame owners

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Gordon Wittenmyer
·5 min read
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Wittenmyer: Don’t blame Davies for Cubs woes; blame owners originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

You can’t blame all of the Cubs’ early-season problems on Zach Davies, even with that gymnastics-score ERA after five starts, and even after he called his Cubs career so far “one of the worst stretches of my career.”

He might pitch lights-out his next five starts, starting Saturday in Cincinnati, and make everybody forget April by the end of May.

He might even outperform Yu Darvish by the time the season is over.

That’s right, Yu Darvish. Because that’s always going to be the point of the discussion when Davies struggles — or at least it will be the ghost that haunts anything he does in Chicago.

That’s why Darvish was mentioned almost as much as Davies in the Twitter complaints after another clunker by the new Cub on Monday night in Atlanta.

But make no mistake: Even if you believe Davies is killing the Cubs’ season, don’t blame him. Blame ownership.

This is what it looks like when a big-market team plays small-market baseball for the second time in less than a decade, slashing player payroll, laying off scouts and office workers and positioning for a possible roster teardown in the face of short-term pandemic-related business losses — after years of franchise-record revenues, the launch of a new television network and some of the highest ticket prices in the game.

The point here is not to say that the Cubs were necessarily in position, either with their roster or economic muscle, to go all in financially over the winter and add whatever fit under the luxury tax threshold.

It’s not even about banging on Davies for a disappointing start as a low-cost, short-term backfill guy.

It’s about the ugly business of Cubs baseball that dictated cost-cutting that included the big salary-dump trade of Darvish for Davies, three teenagers and a 20-year-old coming off a Cy Young runner-up finish for Darvish and a division title for the Cubs.

Move the $60 million on the back half of a 30-something-year-old pitcher’s six-year deal for a handful of roll-the-dice prospects with an eye toward the future? Cool.

Respond to a fifth playoff appearance in six years and a third division title in five by dumping the most impactful player on the roster while selling the idea of still trying to win another division title to a fan base paying through the nose for the watered-down product?

Not cool.

And not right. Not for a team that fans have lined up to support all the way through a full-blown rebuild when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer got to down almost a decade ago — then forked over more after the big 2015 breakthrough and 2016 championship until the franchise was worth more than four times what the Ricketts family paid for it.

In Latin ticket sales that’s called caveat emptor.

Revenues continued to increase as well, while player spending was held in check by an arbitrary luxury-tax threshold that did not keep pace with industry revenues.

Nobody should automatically expect that big-revenue heft to mean constant spending sprees on the biggest free agents without regard to existing roster and farm-system realities.

But no big-market team coming off a first-place finish with a reasonable chance to get to the playoffs again should be salary-dumping the player who made the single greatest impact on that first-place finish and looked like he could do it again.

Since the trade, Darvish has a 2.27 ERA in his first five starts and was the Opening Day starter for the “small-market” Padres — who, by the way, have two $300 million players on a roster they built to take down the Dodgers.

The Cubs built a roster to tear down at the trade deadline.

And the Darvish dump on Dec. 29 was all anyone needed to know to see the Cubs’ first losing April since 2014 coming — along with any struggles to come in May and June that will be used to justify the selloff.

Manager David Ross was asked to come up with new superlatives for Darvish almost every time he pitched last year and referred to each start date as “win day,” often talking about his “stopper” in the rotation — the guy who all but guarantees the team will not have an extended losing streak. As good as Darvish was during the season overall, he was even better after a Cubs loss: 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA.

Thursday Ross was asked if the concept of a “stopper” on the staff goes away when the Opening Day starter, Kyle Hendricks, is struggling like he has in April.

“Every night when you’re scuffling and can’t win, you’re hoping each guy is the stopper,” he said.

It might go without saying, but if all your starters are stoppers it means you don’t have one — or it means you’re the 1971 Orioles.

Meanwhile, the Brewers arguably have two in Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes (pending this week’s injured-list status). It’s why they’re in first place and, barring multiple injuries to that staff, look capable of spending the rest of the season pulling away in the National League Central.

The Cubs snapped a five-game losing streak Thursday — their longest since 2019 — in large part because young Adbert Alzolay delivered one of their stronger starts of the season.

Maybe he’ll pitch like that again next time. Maybe Davies and Hendricks will start performing closer to Jake Arrieta’s first-month level (2.57 ERA).

Maybe a Cubs starter will actually record a seventh-inning out before long (having already set the franchise record for most games to start the season without one).

For now they’re in last place in a mostly small-market division. And that’s not Zach Davies’ fault.

Blame the owners who tanked their best chance for something better, just in time for fans who weren’t allowed in ballparks last year to pay for the privilege of watching the result.

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