The Chicago Cubs just completed a fire sale, shipping out star closer Craig Kimbrel and a trio of franchise cornerstones: Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, and Kris Bryant, all of whom were key contributors to the club’s 2016 World Series title. For the Cubs, this is clearly the end of an era, but it didn’t have to be this way. One of those moves—the trade of Bryant to the San Francisco Giants for a pair of minor leaguers—feels particularly rotten even if it’s not surprising. If you know anything about the Cubs and their owner, it was inevitable that it was going to end this way.
Bryant’s major-league career began in 2015, but not at the beginning of the season. Although he was clearly the Cubs’ best option at third base, they held him in the minors for two weeks. By keeping him off the big-league roster, they ensured that Bryant wouldn’t complete his sixth full year in the bigs, the threshold for free agency, until the end of the 2021 season. Magically, after 12 days in AAA ball, the Cubs decided Bryant was ready to hack it at the highest level; if he’d come up one day earlier, he would’ve accumulated a full year of service time. Bryant then won Rookie of the Year, before following that up with an MVP season and leading the Cubs to a championship. That Bryant later lost a grievance over the Cubs’ service-time shenanigans does not invalidate what anyone could see. The franchise’s key decisionmakers— former team president Theo Epstein, his successor Jed Hoyer, and most importantly chairman Tom Ricketts—were screwing with their best player to save money.
Since his debut season, Bryant has been the third-most-valuable position player in baseball, behind only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. For the Cubs, he was the epitome of a franchise player: He had elite numbers, a gorgeous swing, and great rapport with the fans. He was also willing to be a billboard for the team and the sport as a whole. The 2017 ads he did with Rizzo—who just got dealt to the Yankees—were some of the best sports commercials ever.
There’s nothing more that Bryant could’ve possibly done to earn a rich, long-term contract from his rich and successful team. But it doesn’t appear the Cubs ever got close to offering Bryant a reasonable deal, despite him making it clear that he was interested in staying in Chicago. And because the Cubs also didn’t invest in keeping a great team around Bryant, they are out of the 2021 pennant race. So, they traded Bryant to a team that’s in contention. His last action as a Cub was to stare wistfully out at Wrigley Field from the dugout after a loss on Thursday. Bryant likely didn’t play in that game because the Cubs feared he might get hurt, tanking his trade value. The player who led the Cubs to their first title in 108 years didn’t even get one last at-bat and one last raucous ovation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with bad teams moving potential free agents at the trade deadline. It’s part of the life cycle of modern sports, and the haul of prospects the Cubs just brought in will surely help them rebuild. Bryant, too, is a client of the famously hard-charging Scott Boras, who might have advised him strongly against taking any deal at all. Bryant also struggled badly during last year’s pandemic season, and he’s been good but not an absolute superstar in 2021. At age 29, it’s unclear how many more elite seasons he has left in him. And so, maybe when we look back at this trade five years from now we’ll conclude that it made the Cubs better.
But even if you’re willing to concede some or even most of that, the Bryant deal is still incredibly bleak. To appreciate the scale of this crime against baseball, you have to understand two things. The first is how wildly promising the Cubs were five years ago. The second is how rich the Ricketts family is.
The baseball playoffs can be fluky, and a title isn’t a guarantee of future success—just ask the Kansas City Royals. But the 2016 Cubs were different. Most of the key hitters on that team––Bryant, Rizzo, Báez, and rookie masher Kyle Schwarber among them––were between 22 and 26 that season. The pitching staff was older, but the Cubs still looked like a dynasty in the making.
A bunch of the Cubs’ plans went awry after 2016. Outfielder Jason Heyward forgot how to hit, and it turned out that shortstop Addison Russell didn’t belong anywhere near a major league clubhouse. But the Cubs still had that core group of stars, and they also had an owner whose deep pockets could at least theoretically fix whatever problems inevitably arose. The Ricketts family—led by Tom, the chairman––bought the team and a few related assets for a reported $900 million in 2009. The Cubs are now worth several billion dollars. Even apart from that profitable investment, the Ricketts clan has long been one of the richest families in America. No team has an excuse not to spend heavily to compete. But the Cubs really, really don’t have an excuse.
After 2016, the Cubs’ roster did get more expensive, owing to young stars getting into their arbitration years (after three full seasons in the majors, typically, but two in Bryant’s case) and costing a few million dollars each instead of hundreds of thousands. The team was as high as third in the league in payroll in 2019 (an estimated $204 million on Opening Day), which is about where a team in the Cubs’ position should be. Whether because the Heyward contract was a bust or, more likely, Ricketts wanted to avoid a hefty luxury tax bill, the Cubs never gave a long-term contract to one of their big young hitters. The Cubs’ big free-agent move in this period was a six-year, $126 million pledge to starter Yu Darvish. They salary-dumped him to the San Diego Padres before this season, and he’s been one of the league’s better pitchers—as usual.* By Opening Day 2021, they’d pared their payroll to $147 million, 12th in the league. And the Cubs are now getting what they’ve paid for: This year’s sub.-500 outfit will make it four years in a row without a playoff victory.
While the Cubs were sitting on their hands, their competition was investing. The Los Angeles Dodgers in essence bought the rights to Betts, the second-best position player alive, from the salary-shedding Boston Red Sox. (And L.A. just added more stars right as the Cubs were doing their house-cleaning.) In the Cubs’ same division, the Milwaukee Brewers signed outfielder Lorenzo Cain for five years and $80 million in advance of the 2018 season and would’ve made the World Series that year if the Dodgers hadn’t been so good. The St. Louis Cardinals traded for elite third baseman Nolan Arenado and have left the Cubs in the dust spending-wise (though the Rockies are helping with Arenado’s contract). Even the Cincinnati Reds paid $64 million for Nick Castellanos, a Cubs deadline pickup in 2019 whom Chicago did not re-sign.
For the last few years, the National League Central franchise the Cubs have most closely emulated is the Pittsburgh Pirates. And the Cubs should know better than anybody that you do not want to emulate the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Ricketts has the right to run his team how he sees fit, just as Cubs fans and everyone else have the right to see him as a loathsome cheapskate. If one of the richest clubs in all of sports won’t make a serious run at retaining one of the best players in baseball—a fan favorite who came up through the team’s farm system as the No. 2 overall draft pick and brought the team glory it hadn’t seen in generations—then something is fundamentally broken in Chicago. And it’s not just Bryant. The Cubs treated Rizzo, an inferior but still great player, the same way.
The Cubs finished below .500 every year between 2010 and 2014. During that run, if you’d have told a diehard fan that they’d make the playoffs five of the next seven years and win a World Series, I can guarantee they would’ve taken that deal. (Actually, if you’d have said the Cubs would’ve won a single World Series and accomplished absolutely nothing else, they would’ve taken you up on it.) But even so, what’s happened to the Cubs is massively disappointing, for fans and for the sport. If they’d signed a few big free agents to fill lineup or rotation holes during Bryant’s run on the North Side, not keeping him around would feel more understandable. If they’d found a way to hang onto Báez, or extended Rizzo earlier in his career, it might have softened the blow. But the Cubs did not do any of those things, and now a potential golden era has thudded to an end.
After trading Bryant, Rizzo, and Báez, Ricketts issued a statement to “personally thank” the players for their “critical role” in recent seasons. He didn’t take questions, but if he ever does again, someone should ask him why any Cubs fan should believe he’ll ever spend to support a winning team—whenever it is that he has one next.
Correction, July 31, 2021: This article originally misstated that the Cubs didn’t add any big-ticket free agents in the years immediately following their World Series win. They signed pitcher Yu Darvish in 2018 before trading him three years into his six-year deal.