By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – The excruciating roller coaster ride that is postseason baseball is something to behold, with a palpable buzz throughout a ballpark. Those lucky enough to be there hang with every pitch, each potentially a defining moment.
Wrigley Field had none of that in in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Thursday, when the Cubs were crushed 11-1 by the new kings of the senior circuit, the Dodgers. Ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw was spotted a run before he could take the mound and had a 7-0 lead by the third inning, with the biggest blow being a Kike’ Hernández grand slam, his second of three homers on the night.
The ballpark went from subdued to stunned in that back-breaking third inning, gradually emptying for good in 2017.
“Wait til next year” has different meaning these days in Wrigleyville. No longer is it made a mockery as the Cubs are likely still on the front of of their run of World Series contention. Anthony Rizzo is 28, while Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ are all 25 or younger.
“I looked at the birth certificates of the players playing positions tonight,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I loved it. Heads up. We’re going to keep getting better.”
But next year’s Cubs need some changes, because this year’s group was badly exposed by the much better Dodgers. The Cubs pinned a 43-45 first half on the fatigue of last fall and conceded to being worn down this postseason, but there were fundamental flaws exposed by the end of this unfulfilling run.
A trade could be coming this offseason as president of baseball operations Theo Epstein looks to ensure a different result in 2018. The Cubs have a surplus of young position players and some glaring needs, starting in the rotation.
Jake Arrieta is likely to get a major contract somewhere other than Chicago, and John Lackey’s time in a Cubs uniform is expected to be over, seemingly by retirement. That leaves two voids in the rotation. Mike Montgomery may fill one, but Epstein may be looking to the trade market for another top-line starter. That’s where 23-year-olds in Happ or Almora could offer a strong return and be sold to the highest bidder.
For Epstein, the phone calls should start with an 813 area code to Tampa with the hopes of landing Rays ace Chris Archer, who’s a 29-yearold two-time All-Star good for 200 quality innings each season.
The Cubs also must identify a lead-off man for their lineup. Dexter Fowler was sorely missed atop the batting order in 2017. For all the talented hitters in their linep, the Cubs’ most effective lead-off man this season was Rizzo, whose presence is needed in the heart of the order.
There aren’t prime options available on the free-agent market, so perhaps the Cubs could get creative with a trade. Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich, 25, should lead that wish list. He has a career .369 on-base percentage and is controllable through 2022. Meanwhile, the Marlins are looking to unload salary under new management and start fresh.
What was clear throughout the postseason is that the Cubs need to make major changes in their bullpen, which doesn’t compare to what the Dodgers, Indians, Yankees and many more boast.
Closer Wade Davis and left-hander Brian Duensing proved to be the most reliable bullpen arms in October, but Maddon was left throwing darts blindly at the wall in crucial situations. The Cubs must invest in the bullpen to come back stronger next season, starting with the free agent Davis.
Will the Cubs make a run at Shohei Otani, the Japanese two-way generational superstar? The Yankees and Red Sox are probably the favorites, but Epstein surely will see what he can do. Anything that can bolster the Cubs’ chances for the years to come.
As the party raged on in the visiting clubhouse, Maddon gathered his team around in the spacious home quarters and spoke one final time and brought closure to the season.
“I wanted them to know, listen, three consecutive years when there’s only one other game up on the scoreboard when you’re playing right now, I hope that’s not lost on anybody,” Maddon said. “That’s not easy to do.”
Then Maddon walked through Wrigley Field and by the smell of champagne overpowering the first-base concourse.
His 2017 Cubs were finished. He knows they need to be better in 2018.
“Our guys are so good at addressing needs in the offseason,” he said. “I really believe that’ll be fulfilled.”