With the ever-changing MLB landscape continuing to spur conversation about tanking, collusion, rebuilds, and windows of contention, it’s easy to throw around labels without acknowledging some basic truths. Situations can vary for teams depending on market size, trends within the sport, and ownership.
Windows of contention have been very different for the best teams in baseball over the last 20 years. And even the teams that have capitalized on their chances have missed the playoffs while being within their window. There’s a lot to learn here about perspective as the Cubs pursue opportunities to raise more flags in the bleachers.
So let’s talk about championship windows and where this Cubs team stands right now, using some past and current organizations to help us.
We’ll focus on the Yankees (1995-present), Cardinals (2000-2015), Giants (2010-2016) and Phillies (2007-2011) as our samples. It goes without saying that not all teams and situations are created equal, but it can still be helpful to consider how other great teams have fared. And, yes, I suppose you can argue the Cardinals and Giants are still operating within their respective windows. That said, kindly shut up and just go with me on this.
Those damn Yankees won four titles in five years from 1996-2000. We call that a dynasty where I come from, and we may never see such dominance again. Following that run they reached the playoffs all but once from 2001-12 and came away with only one championship. Their trophy binge of the late 90’s was remarkable, but they went 1-for-11 in their World Series quests the following seasons. October can be a real B.
Looking season by season, it’s hard to argue that the Yankees’ window ever really closed. Since the ’94 strike, they’ve missed the playoffs four times (and they were playing .600 ball that cancelled year, for anyone who likes to assume that World Series was destined to be White Sox vs. Expos). Even their non-playoff seasons saw them post winning records, and with their resources they’ve been able to rebuild on the fly and quickly jump back into contention.
In short, the Yankees remain the gold standard and not reaching the playoffs is a baffling ordeal for their fans. Aspire to be the Yankees.
Next, the Cardinals.
We hate them. They hate us. But we have to accept a hard truth as Cubs fans: As an organization, the Cardinals have been the best in the National League this century.
The Cardinals have had one losing season since 2000, only missing the playoffs six times in the last 18 seasons. But did their window close in 2003 when they missed the playoffs? Clearly not. How about after a middling 2007 after coming off a title? Meh, debatable, as they had a winning record the next year and reached the playoffs in 2009.
Hopefully, for the Cubs’ sake anyway, more losing is on the way for St. Louis and the 2015 NLDS will effectively be seen as The Day the Window Closed. But this stretch has been remarkable, and it’s worth noting that their second worst team during this stretch actually won the World Series. What?
But here’s the thing: That’s what it’s like to be an elite franchise. You make the playoffs and your best team loses in the LCS, then you win it all with a lesser team. Then you miss the playoffs, then you’re back in it. These windows of contention are weird and volatile, but the key is that you’re contending.
Look at the Phillies’ window from their run.
Five shots, two pennants, one trophy, and whole lot of nothing in the seasons before and after. Their best team didn’t make it out of the first round after assembling one of the greatest starting rotations in recent memory. But they had five spins of the postseason wheel and their number came up in 2008. Their window opened, they won a title, and it closed relatively quickly. Now they’re slowly working themselves towards opening another.
The Giants are in a category all on their own.
What do you even call that? Win title, miss playoffs, win title, miss playoffs, win title, miss playoffs, lose to the eventual World Champion Chicago Cubs (people forget that, but it still feels good to say). The Giants unquestionably maximized their window more than any team since the late-90’s Yankees. Of course any team wants as many October chances as possible, but their run shows that missing the playoffs every other year can still lead to championships.
So what does this all mean for the Cubs? Nobody knows! For them to have won the World Series in the second year of their window is pretty special. We’ll never forget that and no one can take it away.
As we spend cold February nights hand-wringing over the roster with Opening Day quickly approaching, it might be helpful to acknowledge the spectrum of possibilities that 2018 holds. Is it possible the Cubs don’t make it four straight NLCS appearances, or that they miss the playoffs entirely? Of course it is. It only takes a few things going terribly wrong for that to happen. Would that mean the window is closed? Nope.
As frustrating as it would be, the core remains too young, talented, and cheap for them not to be considered contenders until further notice. It’s also entirely possible that we’re watching another parade in November.
If we fast forward five or 10 years from now, will the window still be open? Will the Cubs look like the Yankees, where not reaching the playoffs is a harrowing experience that leaves fans shambling through Wrigleyville like an army of undead Ronnie Woo Woos? Or will it be more clean-cut like the Phillies, where they reach the playoffs several years in a row and then need to endure another massive rebuild?
Based on Theo Epstein’s comments last summer, it doesn’t seem like the Cubs will ask fans to suffer through a prolonged period of losing anytime soon. It’s also difficult to say how a media deal after 2019 will impact the team’s financial situation for years to come.
But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Cubs are really good and their competitive window is wide open. How long it will stay that way remains to be seen, but a big-market team that will likely get much richer and that possesses a collection of smart baseball people is a pretty good place to start.