Emma: After another unfulfilling finish, Cubs face need for significant change

The Cubs must seek a new direction after falling flat again in 2020.
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By 670 The Score

(670 The Score) When the Cubs celebrated a World Series championship on that early November night in 2016, many wondered how many more trophies were ahead in their future.

The Cubs had a young core of stars and appeared poised for sustained success. Even so, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein understood there were no guarantees for the Cubs' future.

"Glory is fleeting," Epstein said in April 2017. "But that flag will fly forever."

It seems this golden era for the Cubs organization could be at its end, with another unfulfilling season now by the wayside. The Cubs were eliminated by virtue of a 2-0 loss to the Marlins at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon in Game 2 of their wild-card series. It marked the third straight season the Cubs were quickly eliminated in the wild-card round or didn't make the playoffs.

In perhaps their last chance at a run through October with this core, the Cubs managed just a combined one run and nine hits in two games at home against the Marlins. A lineup loaded with former All-Stars went completely silent in the playoffs -- a fitting end for a flawed team.

If Epstein didn't accept the Cubs' shortcomings before Friday, he surely has to after watching his team get passed by the Marlins -- a perennial bottom dweller that has just now started ascending.

The Cubs were in the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, but they've been in decline since their World Series championship in 2016. They were bounced from the National League Championship Series in 2017, knocked out in the wild-card game in 2018 and missed the postseason altogether last year.

In this shortened 60-game season, the Cubs never looked to be a legitimate championship contender. They earned the NL Central crown thanks in large part to a strong 13-3 start, then went 21-23 from there.

Many of the problems that plagued the Cubs over the past few years did so again in 2020. The offense was inconsistent, and a group filled with great individual talent failed to deliver as a team. After four straight disappointing finishes, Epstein and his front office need to bring major change to the organization.

Third baseman Kris Bryant, shortstop Javier Baez, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and outfielder Kyle Schwarber -- core pieces of the Cubs' championship team -- are each set to become unrestricted free agents after the 2021 season. Epstein could break the group up before then with trades this offseason.

With Bryant and Baez likely to command significant money on the open market, Epstein may need to choose between the two. The Cubs also owe it to Rizzo, their unwavering leader, to either lock him in long term or trade him, rather than leaving uncertainty over his future.

There will be challenges for Epstein after the Cubs' core players all struggled in 2020, especially considering this offseason will be marked by financial uncertainty for teams amid the pandemic. But change needs to come in some form. Once a player like Bryant, Baez, Rizzo or Schwarber is dealt, it will signal a movement away from this era.

The Cubs have aces Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks and outfielder Jason Heyward all under contract through 2023. There won't be a complete teardown this offseason, but the Cubs should use it to take a pivotal step toward something new. Without much depth in the farm system, they need to prioritize the future before the present.

Epstein can't come back with the same Cubs in 2021, a team whose inconsistencies have been clear for the past four seasons. A new direction is needed for the Cubs after another frustrating year.

As the Cubs map out the next steps, that championship flag will fly over Wrigley Field as a reminder of both a remarkable accomplishment and also what more there could've been.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.