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MLB playoffs 2023 disappointment index: Cubs’ September stumbles sting most among contenders who came up short

MLB playoffs 2023 disappointment index: Cubs’ September stumbles sting most among contenders who came up short

In any good competition, there have to be some losers. A wild race for the 12 MLB postseason slots means a handful of teams hit the wall after Game 162 and had to admit defeat.

Not all defeats are created equal, though. There are surprise teams that are happy to be involved at all. There are aging teams making one last run. There are injury-depleted squads and out-of-the-blue down years. The how matters, not just to the taste left in fans’ mouths but also to the direction of the club.

We already broke down the teams that fell completely out of this year’s race, but with the season coming to a close Sunday, four more teams that actively sought playoff glory ultimately fell short.

It’s time to break down the levels of disappointment for MLB’s closest also-rans.

1. Chicago Cubs

It was a tale of three seasons for the Cubs.

At first, they looked half-baked. Having added Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon and Cody Bellinger, the Cubs were 24-31 at the end of May and seemingly headed for another year of selling short-term big-leaguers and sorting through young talent.

Then they played themselves into the race and into the idea that maybe 2023 was a time to buy again, that this was actually the next good Cubs team they’d been working toward. Justin Steele emerged as not just a good story but also a real ace and Cy Young contender. Taillon and Seiya Suzuki turned things around after brutal starts. Mike Tauchman popped up as a strong contributor. By the end of July, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer decided to add. The Cubs didn’t mortgage the future by any means, but they went out and got Jeimer Candelario and, more significantly, declined to trade Bellinger, resurgent on a one-year deal, or pitcher Marcus Stroman on an expiring deal.

Finally, there was the third season, a slow-motion car crash called September. Six times, the Cubs lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks, their wild-card competitors. They dropped a series to the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose ire manager David Ross sparked by calling them a bad team. They simply could not hold off an Atlanta Braves team with its postseason fortunes all sewn up, dropping all three games, one on a brutal Suzuki error.

Put together, it’s a confusing picture. The Cubs’ run differential was better than that of the division champion Brewers and far better than the playoff-bound Marlins or Diamondbacks, but the Cubs had huge stretches of the season in which they couldn’t get the big hit, didn’t have the right guy for the right moment.

In a lot of cases, the best answer for teams like this is to run it back and keep building. But it’s not quite that simple for the Cubs. Their best hitter, Bellinger, will return to free agency and require a much larger investment to bring back. Stroman might be more inclined to return, but he isn’t getting any younger. Some fruits of Chicago’s rebuild are starting to arrive in the forms of Pete Crow-Armstrong and Alexander Canario, but Chicago’s prospect bounty doesn’t project to match up with the Reds’ or perhaps even the Pirates’ within the division, raising the specter of a team that missed its best shot.

Even with positive developments on several fronts, the Cubs are back, in many ways, where they began the year, which might be the most disappointing destination of them all.

2. Seattle Mariners

Should the Mariners get a grace year from disappointment after breaking through to make the playoffs in 2022? Maybe, but this team’s collection of starting pitching and continued employment of Julio Rodríguez inspired hopes for more. In a white-hot August, they seemed to realize those hopes with a swift move to the top of the AL West, but they returned to Earth and dropped out of the playoffs altogether in September.

Half-measures haunted this Mariners team. Even a huge step forward from J.P. Crawford and continued improvement from Cal Raleigh couldn’t provide Rodríguez with enough backup in the lineup. They traded closer Paul Sewald for offensive help at the deadline, but Dominic Canzone and Josh Rojas couldn’t move the needle that much (and shouldn’t have been expected to).

Seattle has one of the best pitching development programs in the majors right now — with George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Bryce Miller and a horde of good relievers in the fold. At some point, the Mariners might need to do more to supplement the offense from the outside while their young rotation, including Luis Castillo, is peaking.

Is 2023 disappointing? Absolutely. Is it an ending? Not necessarily. It could easily turn into a learning moment in an upward trajectory.

3. San Francisco Giants

Frankly, the Giants’ brass seems to be taking the team’s September stumbles harder than a reasonable observer might. After a few reports questioned the job security of top baseball executive Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler, the Giants fired Kapler ahead of the season’s final weekend.

That ended an era in which Kapler was frequently asked to make a gourmet meal with leftovers and table scraps. Frankly, the fact that he succeeded once on a historic scale — winning 107 games in 2021 — and had the Giants in pursuit of a postseason berth again this year seemed more like a credit than cause for dismissal.

Sometimes change needs a visible spark. Sometimes a fresh start is required. But the Giants’ recent problems have never been difficult to diagnose. They don’t have any star hitters in their prime. They barely have any hitters who can credibly play every day, employing a barrage of options with platoon problems or defensive limitations that Kapler had to massage into a litany of lineups. Their pitching acquisitions meant to supplement Logan Webb and Alex Cobb turned into pumpkins immediately, forcing Kapler to utilize what amounted to a two-man rotation for much of the summer, a high-wire act that couldn’t be sustained long enough for the team to stay in the NL wild-card hunt.

Still, a group of younger players is starting to arrive in the Bay Area, and remolding the team around those talents — Patrick Bailey and Kyle Harrison among them — is only beginning. Adding proven stars around them always looked like a necessary next step, and that still seems to be the plan for the offseason.

Maybe there are internal reasons that made moving on from Kapler the logical call, but having whiffed on every major free agent and misfired on too many middling options, Zaidi and the Giants appear to be playing the blame game more than achieving anything productive.

4. Cincinnati Reds

You can’t gauge everything based on personnel moves, but this one works. The Reds promoted Nick Krall from general manager to president of baseball operations and elevated player development executive Brad Meador to GM following a surprise season of contention that saw the Reds debut a parade of fun, exciting rookies.

From the group of Matt McLain, Elly De La Cruz, Christian Encarnacion-Stand, Noelvi Marte, Spencer Steer and Will Benson, the Reds watched a young core emerge on fast-forward. There is real and difficult work to come in maximizing that group, potentially by trading some of them, but the 2023 season was a big party on house money.

The Reds didn’t make the postseason this year, but they aren’t disappointed at all. They had one of the most encouraging seasons in baseball.

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