MILWAUKEE — What happened to the Chicago Cubs cannot be unseen. Imagine looking overwhelmed at your company’s biggest conference of the year or appearing worn down at an important event and then losing your most valuable clients. It would change the walk into the office Monday morning to meet with the boss.
The collapse will be the last impression of the 2023 Cubs, a scrappy team that kept finding excruciating ways to lose close games at the most critical point of the season. Those internal frustrations will color all of the exit interviews and offseason strategy sessions. As good as the process may be, the results cannot be ignored.
The official elimination happened at 8:47 p.m. Saturday while the Cubs were nearing the end of their 10-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field. Nearly 600 miles away, the Miami Marlins clinched a wild-card spot in the National League playoffs with their 7-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. For the Cubs, Sunday’s Game 162 will be meaningless.
David Ross knows how this business works. The manager is never blameless after a September with eight one-run losses, a brutal stretch of 14 losses in 20 games and a golden opportunity to make the playoffs wasted.
“We’re in this together,” Ross said. “I wouldn’t separate myself from any player, front office, coach. If we don’t get to where we want to get to, I’m the head of the team. I’m the manager of this team. The blame should come on me first.”
The 2023 #postseason field is set!
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— MLB (@MLB) October 1, 2023
The reckoning likely won’t be as severe as the one Theo Epstein once predicted when he saw the potential post-2016 dynasty crumbling. Ross built up a lot of equity as a player on that World Series team. Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has a different temperament than Epstein and sees this as the beginning of a long runway. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts is not the kind of reactive owner who demands change for the sake of change.
This still changes the atmosphere around the franchise. The talking points the Cubs used to get through their media obligations sounded hollow as their playoff chances plummeted from around 90 percent in early September to zero: You would have taken this in spring training. We would have signed up for it at the trade deadline. As the losses mounted, the silence in the clubhouse spoke louder.
Team personnel also deferred the big-picture assessments while those postseason hopes were still flickering. Now that audit of what went right and what went wrong will begin in earnest. The reality is the Cubs will have to deal with increasing expectations and recognize that patience is not unlimited.
“Disappointment, we can all feel that,” Ross said after addressing the team in the visiting clubhouse. “I’ll soak that in and remember how that feels and use that this offseason to get better and continue to grow and come back next year and take another step forward.”
The Cubs posted a winning record and played meaningful games until the end of September. Cody Bellinger, a free agent Ross helped recruit, is in line for a huge contract off his MVP-ish season. Justin Steele applied the advice Jon Lester communicated through Ross and became a Cy Young Award candidate. Seiya Suzuki and Christopher Morel benefited from the timeouts Ross gave them to watch from the bench and exhale. Ross and his coaching staff discovered a winning bullpen formula that lasted long enough to bring the late-season buzz back to Wrigley Field.
Ross’ strengths as a manager became apparent as the Cubs dug out from being 10 games under .500 in June and eventually climbed to 10 games over .500, an in-season swing that had never happened before in franchise history. Ross’ consistent demeanor helped foster a positive working environment, preventing the season from going off the rails. With his ability to relate to players, Ross insulates the front office from some of the clubhouse issues that inevitably arise among millionaires.
Finishing with 83 wins would represent a nine-win improvement from last year. The Cubs will presumably accomplish their goal of staying beneath the $233 million luxury tax threshold. Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ are solid two-way players on contracts that run through at least 2026. Adbert Alzolay, when healthy, proved himself as a closer. A new pipeline of young pitching is up and running. The farm system has been reloaded.
But when a team crashes like this, it leaves the manager open to more criticism. Even if these coin-flip decisions involve a degree of luck, the manager is paid to get it right. That’s why Craig Counsell will be an in-demand free agent after the playoffs if the Brewers don’t sign him to a new contract.
Ross didn’t have any formal coaching or management experience when Epstein and Hoyer hired him to replace Joe Maddon after the 2019 season. The front office and the manager will never completely agree on every personnel move and in-game decision. This particular roster was set up in a way that the manager would be second-guessed. The next steps for the Cubs in this rebuild might be the hardest.
“We didn’t win enough ballgames,” Ross said. “We can point fingers and blame, but I don’t think that’s it. We got to look inward and see where we need to improve. It’s on each one of us to grow this year. It doesn’t feel like it right now, but there’s a lot to be proud of from a lot of different guys. We also got to get better in so many areas.”
(Photo: Brett Davis / USA Today)