Cubs Still May Be NL Central Favorites In 2021 (www.mlb.com)

If I were a Cubs fan — and I very much am not — I think I’d be awfully frustrated right now.
After that incredible, life-changing World Series title in 2016, the team kept taking a series of steps backward: Losing the National League Championship Series in 2017, the Wild

If I were a Cubs fan — and

— I think I’d be awfully frustrated right now.

After that incredible, life-changing World Series title in 2016, the team kept taking a series of steps backward: Losing the National League Championship Series in 2017, the Wild Card Game in ’18 and missing the playoffs entirely in ’19. They rebounded to win the NL Central in ’20 but were eliminated in two games in the postseason and, sort of shockingly, responded by trading away ace Yu Darvish for salary relief and some bank-shot prospects … and they might not be done.

(And don’t forget waving goodbye to Kyle Schwarber.)

With their core World Series-winning crew of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez all reaching free agency after this season, it looks like the end of the Cubs era is looming.

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Considering how much Cubs fans have invested in their franchise, and how loyal they’ve been for more than a century, to see the team dismantled and starting over — when this was supposed to be a dynasty — must rankle. The 2016 team is increasingly looking like the 1985 Chicago Bears: A glorious gaggle of lovable characters that should have been a juggernaut for years but ended up getting just that one title.

That one title absolutely counts; it’ll make heroes out of everyone involved for the rest of everybody’s lives. But you can’t help but feel like there should have been more.

But the funny thing about all those players hitting free agency, and the Cubs seemingly taking a step back, is that, as of now, they are all still here. The 2020 season was widely seen as one last rodeo for Bryant, Rizzo, Báez and the crew before president of baseball operations Theo Epstein left and the team was dismantled. But when you take a step back and look at this, even without Darvish … isn’t it possible that they’re still the favorites in the NL Central? Maybe it’s 2021 that’s the last run?

Now, it’s possible the Cubs trade Bryant or Báez (or Willson Contreras) by the time I finish this sentence. But if they don’t, and they decide to stop at Darvish and roll them out for one last season, you can make a pretty strong argument that still, as is, the Cubs could end up getting that one last World Series.

To be clear: This team is rather far from the Dodgers. Trading away Darvish is a devastating move for a team that already had some rotation issues. Kyle Hendricks is a No. 2 starter who now has to be a No. 1, and while there’s reason to have some hope for Zach Davies, the Cubs are now relying on him to be … well, Kyle Hendricks. And the rest of the rotation is patchwork at best, even if you believe in Alec Mills; with the free agency of José Quintana, Jon Lester and Tyler Chatwood, the Cubs’ rotation has the talent drain everyone’s expecting from the lineup next year.

Even if the Cubs add to the rotation outside of the smattering of young pitchers in their system, they’re clearly not going to spend much or invest all that deeply. The rotation is going to be a mess. Their bench is thin everywhere, even if they hang on to all those free agents — it’s possible their best bench bat will be Max Schrock — and the bullpen is flimsy even if Craig Kimbrel finds some semblance of his old form. They’re wobbly. There’s no question about it.

But fortunately for the Cubs, they are in the right division to be wobbly and still contend. That’s to say: Who has stepped up in the NL Central to grab the division crown from them?

The Cardinals, the team that finished second in the division, haven’t made a single even semi-major move; they’ve lost leadoff man and defensive whiz Kolten Wong; and they might not re-sign Adam Wainwright, their best pitcher last season. (And Yadier Molina isn’t a cinch to return either.) The Reds seem to have reversed course on their aggression last offseason, likely saying goodbye to Trevor Bauer and trading away Raisel Iglesias. The Brewers, often resourceful in the past, have been oddly inert this offseason; their only real move was trading away Corey Knebel. (To the Dodgers, which makes you immediately think the Dodgers know something the Brewers don’t.) And the Pirates … well, I’m pretty sure no one’s worried about the Pirates.

Remember, the Cubs won this division by three full games last year. And they did that despite having some down years from their stars. Rizzo and Bryant both had the worst years of their careers, with Bryant once again having injury issues. Contreras was fine but didn’t develop into the superstar everyone had been hoping for. And what happened to Báez is downright baffling. Báez, an electric All-Star in the prime of his career, put up a .203/.238/.360 line, which is roughly what Zack Greinke put up two years ago, back when pitchers could hit. It is as if the Monstars stole his talent.

The Cubs got excellent years from Hendricks, Ian Happ and (surprisingly) Jason Heyward, but otherwise, just about everything else went wrong. And they still won the division by three games!

There’s plenty of reason to think that offense, which was such a mess last year, should be better, right? Bryant’s health is always iffy to count on, but even at 130 games he should be a positive. Rizzo is still Rizzo, and Happ appears to be one of their few ascendant players. And it’s difficult to imagine Báez not having a pretty huge turnaround; he’s one of the most purely talented players in the game, and he couldn’t do worse than last year if he decided to go to the plate without a bat.

You do not have to squint to see this offense being better even without bringing in anyone new. The Cardinals, as an example, sure would love to have a Happ/Báez/Contreras/Bryant threat in their lineup.

Will it be enough to offset the loss of Darvish and the rotation/bullpen problems? Probably not. But remember, the Cubs have a wide margin of error here. If they were in the American League East, I think it’d be fair to write them off. But without anyone else in the division stepping up, the Cubs look, roughly, like the same slightly above average, 85-win-or-so team they were last year. And that might just be enough to win the NL Central, the way it’s going.

And if you can get in the playoffs, you can win the World Series.

It is possible, again, that the Cubs will continue dismantling this team, and this whole column will be moot. But right now? Even without Darvish, in the NL Central, they’re as good a bet as anyone.

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