I had the seven games the St. Louis Cardinals had scheduled against the Chicago Cubs the last 10 days of the season circled before the 2019 season even began.
But I never would have guessed they would pan out so well in the Cardinals’ favor. Short of winning a twelfth World Series next month, this is about the best thing St. Louis fans could have hoped for. With all due respect to Cubs entertainment critic Kris Bryant, it certainly wasn’t boring.
I figured when the schedule came out that, if we were lucky, St. Louis would arrive at Wrigley Field a game ahead or a game behind in the National League Central Division standings confronted with the tough task of trying to win two or three out of four games in hostile conditions. I figured if the Cardinals could force a split in Chicago, they’d have a chance to try to take two of three at Busch Stadium. But who would have figured the Cardinals would sweep the Cubs, clinching a spot in the postseason for the first time in four years, and all but knocking their arch rival out of the playoff picture.
The Cardinals hadn’t swept a four-game set at Wrigley since it was one of the newest ballparks in the National League way back in 1921.
It was a beautiful weekend, not only because the Cardinals exorcised their playoff missing demons, but because it appears they may have dealt a fatal blow to the expected Cubs “dynasty” after only one World Series win. Yes, I wish it was still oh-fer the last 110 years. But we were all told that the tanking Cubs would rebuild themselves into a decade-long powerhouse. Instead, it appears that once-beloved skipper Joe Maddon is on the verge of being fired, which explains several desperate moves he made during the St. Louis series including playing injured starters Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez.
Delightfully, the acquisition of high-dollar closer Craig Kimbrel blew up spectacularly in the four-game tilt with the former Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox closer tossing batting practice to the St. Louis hitters in games one and three. I wonder, with two years to go on his free agent contract, if Maddon was ordered not to pitch Kimbrel in the series finale. It would’ve been pretty hard for the pitcher to come back from that — even if the manager isn’t back next season. No matter, Pedro Strop picked up where Kimbrel left off and fumbled away a ninth-inning lead.
The Chicago Tribune reported a few weeks back that the Cubs look more like a team that is about to be torn down and rebuilt than one that is on the rise. I hope they’re right. The Cubs will have a lot of decisions to make as their pitching staff passes out of its prime. Cole Hamels and Jon Lester are both 35 while Yu Darvish has had a tough time staying healthy the past couple of years. Chicago can shed Hamels as a free agent. But it has one more guaranteed year of Lester at $20 million and a $10 million buyout in 2021. Darvish will spend the next four years collecting $81 million. I sure hope the team can’t find a sucker to take that contract off its hands.
Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks will see his salary go from $7 million in 2019 to $12 million in 2020 and $14 million in 2021 and 2022, backfilling some of the money the team might save on Hamels. Kimbrel, who looks like he’s toast, will collect $32 million over the next two seasons.
Could it be too much to hope for that the Chicago front office will burn the whole team to the ground again, tanking in hopes of rebuilding from scratch? I don’t see it happening. While their pitching staff is a wreck, the Cubs have several controllable twenty-somethings in their starting eight. They’re facing a tough decision in the not-too-distant future with Kris Bryant heading into his last two years of arbitration. I’m sure the Cubs are hoping the approaching new collective bargaining agreement will put a lid on their young star’s earning power. In the meantime, the team has a very club-friendly pact with slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo. So it probably won’t make sense to gut the team, giving St. Louis fans three or four years of peace.
So, enjoy the glory of returning things to their natural order now, even if the Chicago money printing machine is getting ready to fire up for another offseason of spending like a drunken sailor.