MESA, Ariz. — The forever moment turned out to have a shelf life.
When the Cubs won the 2016 World Series, it not only closed a century-plus of misery, but seemingly opened a dynasty, such was the excellence and youth of their positional core.
Who knew the good times were already over? Each year has grown increasingly worse: NLCS defeat, loss in the wild-card game, miss the playoffs. That night in early November 2016, after guiding the Cubs’ first title in 108 years, should have guaranteed Joe Maddon the job security John Wooden once had at UCLA. Kris Bryant, a few days from being named the NL MVP, was the homegrown cornerstone.
“I don’t think there are forever moments,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said.
He knows from experience. Hoyer and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein were the main architects of the 2004 Red Sox, who ended The Curse of the Bambino. They lost the Sunday night regular-season opener in 2005 to the Yankees, then lost the next game and Hoyer remembers “the what have you done for me lately?” vibe intensifying.
“We told people [in Chicago] prior to ’16 that they will say, ‘Just one [championship], just one, I’ll be happy to just get one.’ No. You won’t even be happy until Week 3 of the next season,” Hoyer said. “The idea of a blissful afterglow after a championship, it just doesn’t exist.”
Cubs officials chalked up a slow start in 2017 and postseason fatigue to the toll of winning it all. Then in 2018, the Cubs blew a 3 ¹/₂-game division lead with two weeks to play, losing both a one-game playoff to Milwaukee for the NL Central title and the one-game wild-card game to Colorado at home. The baserunning and defense — assets of the 2016 champs — were now poor. Removing Maddon was contemplated. But there were 95 wins, the names on the uniforms still hinting at greatness. So Cubs officials talked themselves into 2019 would be better.
If anything, the baserunning/defense only worsened and a nine-game losing streak in late September assured no postseason and finalized what was pretty obvious from the outset — Maddon’s five-year term was done.
Both sides publicly have been in kumbaya mode. But after constructing a potential Hall of Fame managerial career with the Rays and Cubs — two of the most analytical organizations in the majors — Maddon has taken subliminal shots at his previous employer by speaking so often about rejecting most of analytics.
Meanwhile, every Cubs comment about how Madden was the right manager at the right time — his laid-back persona helping deflate stress for those young Cubs seeking a title — reads as a criticism that the more recent vintages needed an activist leader to demand greater attention to detail.
“We haven’t played to our capabilities the last two years,” Hoyer said.
The most overt change from the last two years is Maddon. He won’t be the last. Bryant, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo all can be free agents after next year. Hoyer said, “Every one of those guys is not going to be a lifetime Cub.”
So this is last stand time for this group, considering the Cubs already talked quite a bit to suitors during the offseason about Bryant and Contreras. For now the big change is David Ross, who was a backup catcher on the 2016 champs, replacing Maddon.
“Obviously, we have new leadership, in a unique package in David Ross, who is good at holding players, particularly these players, accountable while also being a unifier,” Epstein said. “I do believe we will get different results even with the same personnel because of what this group has been through. I think there is a real desire to reverse what has happened since winning.”
Ross faces pitching depth issues, especially beyond the rotation frontline. But if Yu Darvish and Schwarber extend the terrific second halves of last season over a full year and Craig Kimbrel rediscovers Craig Kimbrel, the Cubs can still win a competitive NL Central.
If not, an era will have ended. Before 2015, every Cubs fan would have signed up for: Five years of contention, four playoffs, three NLCS appearances and one title. Now, that feels inadequate.
“It has been interesting to see how it has all played out since 2016,” Bryant said. “I didn’t expect it to go like this. But things really don’t go how you expect in this game too often.”
Nothing lasts forever.