The 2021 season is over, and it was one of the strangest seasons in the history of the Cubs. And that’s saying something. If you want to read some great analysis on what happened this year, there are many resources available. I’m not going to do any of that. I want to look specifically at what effect 2021 had on the list of the all-time greatest Cubs, and what it might bode for the future.
The season began with seven active players on the list of notable Cubs. My definition of “notable” is “better than Bill Buckner.”
Active players ranked at the end of 2020:
- 19. Anthony Rizzo
- 31. Kris Bryant
- 47. Kyle Hendricks
- 48. Jake Arrieta
- 63. Javier Baez
- 79. Willson Contreras
- 99. Jason Heyward
I’ll start with the bad news. Jake Arrieta got worse. That’s somewhat hard to do in my system, because you get credit just for playing. Points are awarded for plate appearances and innings pitched, so if you can manage at least a 0.0 WAR for the year, you’re bound to go up or at least keep your spot. Jake did not manage that 0.0 WAR, he pitched very badly, and was eventually released. It really is a shame, because Jake’s first stint with the Cubs was electric and legendary, and he quickly became a fan favorite. This season cost Jake three spots in the ranking, and he ends his Cubs career as the 51st greatest Cub.
Kyle Hendricks did not pitch very well either, enduring the worst season of his career. But he wasn’t nearly as bad as Arrieta and managed to go up three spots to 44. Kyle has three years left on his contract with the Cubs. Assuming he stays with the team and remains relatively healthy, he will finish somewhere in the 26-32 range on the list. That puts him in the Cubs Hall of Fame by my standards, and should do the same for the actual Cubs Hall of Fame. If he signs another extension, he could reach as high as 16th, but I can’t see him getting higher than that.
The biggest improvement belongs to Willson Contreras who climbs from 79 to 67. Contreras was the one consistently good player that was there from March to October, and according to Baseball Reference this was the best year of his career. The 2022 season is the last year the Cubs have control of Contreras, after which he’ll become a free agent. If that’s his last season, and if he builds on 2021 and has another career year, he could finish in the top 50, knocking out fellow catcher King Kelly.
Jason Heyward climbed one spot to 98. It’s difficult to predict what could happen with Heyward. He is under contract for two more years at $22M per, but I don’t think anyone expects him to be a full-time players in 2022-2023, and plenty of fans would like to see him become a no-time player. It’s already inconceivable that Heyward is, for now, one of the 100 greatest Cubs, largely due to the postseason success the team has had during his time.
Now to the trio of pain. Rizzo, Bryant, and Baez have been the core hitters of this 21st century Cubs revival. The fact that this revival didn’t reach the heavenly heights that Cubs fans envisioned doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. This period certainly ranks as one of the three most successful in Cubs history, along with Frank Chance’s 19-aughts and Gabby Hartnett’s 1929-1938. It was fun to be a fan from 2015 to 2021, and nothing will ever tarnish the memory of 2016. Now to business. All three players managed to climb in the rankings before being traded at the 2021 deadline. Before leaving for the Mets, Javy Baez was typical Javy, providing excellent defense, inconsistent hitting, and flashes of brilliance in every aspect of the game. He rose six spots to 57. If this was his last turn with the Cubs, I think he’s in that tier just outside of Cubs Hall of Fame status. There are several players in the Cubs Hall that are less worthy than Javy, no doubt, but those odd decisions shouldn’t pave the way for everyone to get in. In my opinion, shortstops Bill Dahlen and Woody English should receive consideration before Javy does.
Bryzzo. One day in the coming years there will be a ceremony at Wrigley Field adding these two men to the list of revered Cubs names. Kris Bryant rose three spots to 28 with a very good partial season for the Cubs, cementing what might have been a tenuous (but probably not) grasp on the Cubs Hall. When you rank as high as Anthony Rizzo, jumping up the ranking becomes difficult. He managed to squeeze past Hippo Vaughn and Billy Herman, and is just barely behind Johnny Evers. Cubs fans will always wonder what might have been for this duo. They looked like they were destined for a replay of Santo and Williams, two players with long Cubs careers together, top ten, retired numbers, the whole shebang. There’s still a chance one or both could return, I suppose, but even if they don’t, their status as Chicago legends is settled. Bryzzo forever.
Now Hendricks, Contreras, and Heyward are the highest ranked active Cubs, but who are those active players further down the list, in the top 500 at least?
- 131. Ian Happ
- 319. David Bote
- 373. Alec Mills
- 453. Adbert Alzolay
- 462. Nico Hoerner
That’s bleak, I know. Happ is the only one even close to breaking the Buckner barrier, which he will most likely do in 2022. The next great Cub is probably not on the active roster today. Whether that’s Brennen Davis or Carlos Correa or some name we haven’t even considered, I’ll keep an eye out for him.