Remember when the Cubs won four straight series, three of them against winning ballclubs? That feels like 14 years ago because they’ve now lost seven straight to fall 21 games below .500 and into a virtual tie with the Reds, who just won a series against the Yankees in New York. Yes, those same Reds that began the season 3-22. And while Cincinnati will likely do even more selling than we saw in their offseason purge, the Cubs are poised to move their pair of All-Star clubhouse leaders and several pitchers.
If it’s this bad with Ian Happ and Willson Contreras, what’s it going to look like after August 2? What’s really sad is that a lot of folks are totally on board with it, and not just because they’ve accepted the inevitability and merely want the other shoe to drop. There is a not-insignificant portion of Cubs fandom truly jonesing for trades because they believe wholeheartedly that a scorched-earth rebuild is the best way to start winning again.
That’s probably because the Cubs have done a very good job of selling the concept, even as the front office continues to reject the descriptive phrasing. The Cubs now hold a share of the best odds (16.5%) of winning the top pick in next summer’s draft, which will come just a year after they pick seventh overall. They’re not guaranteed the top choice by any stretch, nor are they even assured of a top-3 pick, so the idea of tanking isn’t quite as appealing as in the past.
Running the Tankathon lottery simulator five times gave the Cubs the following picks: 5, 2, 3, 4, 7. Running it a sixth time ended with them getting the No. 1 spot, so Jed Hoyer, Dan Kantrovitz, and crew are hoping that’s the winner. There are a lot more bad teams out there, many of which will likewise be getting worse at the deadline, so the Cubs could well end up out of the top, er, bottom three.
What’s really pathetic and off-putting for the sport as a whole is that four teams are on pace to lose 100 games this season and five more could lose 90-plus. So much for those efforts to discourage uncompetitive play. Four teams are on pace to win 100, but it’s not simply a matter of feasting on the aforementioned carrion at the bottom of each division.
The Dodgers, Mets, and Yankees boast the highest payrolls in MLB and the Astros are in the top 10 with the potential to bump up a little at the deadline. Of those 10 teams, only the Angels — who are somehow bad despite having the two best players on the planet — are well out of the postseason picture. The Blue Jays (11), Cardinals (12), and Giants (13) are all within one game of the Wild Card at worst.
The Twins (17) and Brewers (19) are the big outliers as division leaders, though both would be distant seconds at best in any other division. Then you’ve got the Orioles, who have rocketed into contention despite having MLB’s lowest payroll on the strength of 10 straight wins, the last two of which came at the Cubs’ expense. But lest you start looking at them as an example of what the Cubs could do, consider that they have lost at least 108 games in each of the last three full seasons and had a 94-loss pace in the shortened 2020 season.
What I’m saying is that you should be very careful what you ask for when you fall for the line that money doesn’t buy championships and that tanking to build through the draft is a great strategy. You might end up pulling for a team that averages 107 losses for four years running. Carrying a big payroll isn’t the only way to win, but it sure as hell makes winning a lot easier.