The last stand of baseball's never realized dynasties
What happened to the young Cubs and Astros juggernauts of a few years ago?
On November 2, 2016, Chicago Cubs' first baseman Anthony Rizzo snagged a throw from a beaming Kris Bryant for the final out of the World Series, ending a 108-year-old curse. But that chaotic, nail-biting Game 7 victory also seemed like the start of something: A burgeoning Cubs dynasty.
Several core members of that team had yet to celebrate their 25th birthday, and it sure seemed like the club would be recurring visitors to the Fall Classic. It wasn't meant to be. Aside from a laborious run to the National League Championship Series in 2017, the Cubs have yet to play deep into October again, and it feels like 2021 could be their last chance for a while. The final links to the 2016 team, including Bryant and Rizzo, are in the final year or two of their contracts. The Cubs have regressed from a team that looked primed to win multiple championships to a middling club that may wind up trading a group of players that once seemed like Cub lifers at the deadline if things go south this year.
In the American League, the Houston Astros appeared to be on a similarly promising trajectory after they won the 2017 World Series, and the possibility of the two titans trading rings for years to come felt real. Unlike Chicago, Houston did follow up their title with two more dominant seasons, winning more than 100 games in both 2018 and 2019, and they were a few outs from a second trophy in 2019 before letting a late Game 7 lead slip away. The Astros also likely have a more realistic shot at a pennant in 2021, but, with some key pieces gone, it likewise feels like a final stand for the 2017 crew.
This is not to say Chicago or Houston are cautionary tales; most baseball fans would be very happy to have watched their teams win a World Series in the last five years. Ultimately, though, their stories reflect just how small championship windows are these days and the fact that baseball dynasties, at least as they're generally understood, are a thing of the ancient past.
This isn't breaking news. No team has won back-to-back World Series titles since the New York Yankees' three-peat between 1998-2000, so the sport has had some variety when it comes to champions. (The “even-year” San Francisco Giants, who won in 2010, 2012, and 2014 belong in their own category, a topic for another time). The Cubs and Astros, though, had all the ingredients to buck that trend.
Unsurprisingly, there's not a single, clear-cut reason it didn't happen. For starters, playoff expansion has made it challenging to string together championships. As great as the Yankees were in the 1950s, for example, they may not have won five straight championships, or seven in 10 years, if they had to play a division and championship series every year just to get to the World Series.
Some of it can also be chalked up to the randomness of baseball; it's hard to predict the trajectory of ballplayers' careers. In Chicago's case, Bryant, who won Rookie of the Year in 2015 and followed that up with an MVP trophy the next season, appears to have peaked early. He's still a very good player (notwithstanding a brutal, pandemic-shortened 2020), but he hasn't become the transcendent star the Cubs hoped.
Off the field incidents played a role, as well — Addison Russell, the 2016 Cubs' 22-year-old starting shortstop, meanwhile, is out of baseball following domestic violence allegations. The Astros, of course, had their cheating scandal, which resulted in the dismissal of their manager and general manager, and changed the perception of their success.
Houston and Chicago, to varying degrees, also haven't spent the money many thought they would. The Astros, to be fair, have been much more aggressive. They locked up two of their homegrown stars, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, and kept adding veteran pieces through trades and free agency, including Michael Brantley and Zack Greinke. But they also let former ace Gerrit Cole and center fielder George Springer walk without much of a fight in successive offseasons, and it's unclear if they'll come to terms with shortstop Carlos Correa before he hits free agency this offseason. The Cubs, meanwhile, have failed to ink any of the stars they developed to long-term extensions, aside from Kyle Hendricks, a solid pitcher, who signed a relatively modest 4-year deal in 2019. Bryant, Rizzo, shortstop Javier Baez, and catcher Willson Contreras will all likely hit the open market. And the one big free agent they've brought in since 2016, starting pitcher Yu Darvish, was just dealt to the San Diego Padres with three years remaining on his deal.
Cubs ownership has claimed the team is short on cash over the last couple of seasons, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, but neither of these teams should be poor. They play in large markets and have had success in recent years. But most franchises these days are simply wary of bogging down their roster with large contracts, fearing the players will age faster than expected. Sometimes just wrong step will do the trick. The Philadelphia Phillies, who won the World Series in 2008, gave out a hefty to contract to slugger Ryan Howard, only for injuries and a rapid decline to derail his career. Howard deserved the money based on his past performance, but it's hard to argue the decision didn't hamper the franchise for several years. Other clubs, including the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, and Baltimore Orioles, signed players to mega-deals that eventually stretched them thin.
The Cubs and Astros are perhaps more willing to embrace the boom-bust cycle, in which they capitalize on players in their primes before retooling. A more extreme version of this strategy can be seen in Tampa Bay, where the Rays routinely trade their young stars a couple of seasons before free agency, so they can maximize their return. It helps the small-market franchise stay competitive most years, but it means there's a lot of roster turnover.
Other large-market teams have followed suit, perhaps most notably the Boston Red Sox, one of the most lucrative teams in baseball. In 2018, they won 108 games en route to a title and were led by Mookie Betts, the consensus second-best player in baseball, who seemed destined to have a statue outside Fenway one day. A little over a year later, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers because the sides couldn't agree on an extension, and Boston is now coming off a last-place finish. It might be incredibly frustrating for fans, but it's where the game is at.
Perhaps clubs like the defending champion Dodgers — who may already represent what a modern baseball dynasty actually is: a perennial division-winning force that accepts the randomness of October baseball — or the Padres, their upstart challenger, will prove to be outliers, keeping their young stars around, while continuously adding talent to the roster and making a run at the title every year. But their fans need only to look at the never-realized Cubs and Astros dynasties to know not to take their current success for granted.