Wrigley winter begins with bitter sweep, but Cubs' future is bright

The Cubs' great leap forward (2:17)

The Baseball Tonight crew discusses the improvements the Cubs have made and if that momentum will carry over to the 2016 season. (2:17)

CHICAGO -- At the tender age of 22, Kyle Schwarber already has the Chicago Cubs' postseason record for home runs.

Now, Cubs playoff records are a little more modest than, say, those of the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, but Schwarber should have plenty of opportunities to add more records next to his name.

His future is full of dingers that disappear deep in the night and are eventually covered in plexiglass atop a video board.

After the Cubs, winners of 97 games in a thoroughly enjoyable, highly surprising regular season, were swept out of the National League Championship Series with an 8-3 loss to the New York Mets, Schwarber, with grass stains on his knees from his adventures in left field, stood at his locker and talked about the present and the future. Schwarber looks like the kind of guy who crushed beer cans on his forehead for fun at Indiana University, but he is a very intelligent guy. Thoughtful, too.

"It really does kind of put it in perspective when you see a guy like Dan Haren, it's his last day in a big league uniform, it does kind of make you cherish the days you are wearing this uniform and how much you've got to enjoy this," Schwarber said. "Because if you don't, when that day comes, it's over with."

Haren, the Cubs' major acquisition at the non-waiver trade deadline, walked out of the clubhouse alone as reporters swarmed the team's ace, Jake Arrieta. Haren was a Cardinals rookie in 2003 when then-Cubs manager Dusty Baker proclaimed, "This is just the beginning" of the Cubs beating up on St. Louis. That was 12 years ago. A lifetime in baseball.

One day, Schwarber will walk out of a clubhouse by himself heading toward the rest of his life. Will he be one of the guys who helps the Cubs win a World Series or three? The signs are good, but you never know how it will play out. Just ask Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.

For now, Schwarber, with his record-setting five homers, was just part of a Cubs team that never had a lead in the NLCS, another Cubs team ushered out of the playoffs earlier than it had hoped.

"We're going to remember what this feeling feels like," he said.

A week ago, the Cubs were world-beaters, spraying sparkling wine on each other outside of their home dugout, dreaming of going all the way and making that Eddie Vedder song a reality. That happiness was fleeting.

On Wednesday night, the Cubs could only give their fans a thank-you curtain call, not a shower of booze, as the Mets celebrated making the World Series on the field.

After sweeping the Mets during the regular season, the Cubs didn't come close to winning this series. Their slash line for the series was .164/.225/.297. The staff ERA was 5.56. The Cubs didn't have a lead against the Mets' starters. In their elimination game, Cubs starter Jason Hammel gave up four runs in the first inning on back-to-back homers. The Cubs trailed 6-0 after two innings.

The Cubs' collective feet barely touched the ground the last two-plus months as a potentially interesting season turned into a thrill ride, but they fell to earth with a thud this week.

Cubs pitcher Jon Lester, the team's most important player acquisition last year as the organizational rebuilding plan took a quantum leap behind the hiring of manager Joe Maddon, said he could only take positives from the year. Lester, a guy who has won a World Series ring, refused to entertain the notion that the way the season ended could affect how this year would be remembered.

But he does think his young teammates can learn from the way the Cubs went out.

"It's hard to get to this point," he said. "You can fool people through the season and win games, but this is where you get exposed, and this is where you figure out how to truly win. We did it twice and came up a little short here.

"But it's only going to make these guys better, make us better, and hopefully we get another chance at this. Guys know how to win now, they know how to compete. Guys will come in and expect to be in this position, if not the next step. That to me is the greatest positive we can take from this year."

Complacency is an enemy now. Most of these Cubs have never played this late into a season. How they prepare for next season is crucial to making this kind of a run an annual affair. How motivated are they for next year, when the team will be a World Series favorite before spring training begins? Will a longer season wear on their bodies? The Cubs were very healthy this year.

Nearly every Cub has work to do on his overall game.

Schwarber and Jorge Soler are tremendous hitters who need to be better outfielders. That was exposed in the postseason.

Also exposed were the Cubs' 3-4 hitters, who carried the team offensively during the regular season. Kris Bryant, the consensus favorite for rookie of the year, hit .176 with two homers and one double in the postseason. His only NLCS homer came too late in Wednesday's game. Anthony Rizzo, an MVP candidate, hit .188 in the playoffs, with two homers and no doubles. Together, they drove in a seven runs.

Arrieta should win the National League Cy Young Award, but he scuffled a bit in the playoffs after a career high in innings. Lester was slightly worse. The Cubs' brain trust knows they need more starting pitching, just look at the Mets, but we'll see if the owners pony up the cash to get it.

For a franchise that has practically trademarked "Wait 'til next year," it's been a long time since the future was so promising. This year was the right time to make that elusive World Series; they weren't early, because you can't schedule a Fall Classic into your calendar. But it didn't happen. The Cubs weren't good enough at the end. Simple as that.

But the journey sure was fun, don't forget that.

"It stings right now getting swept, but to be one of four standing at the end of year, still playing meaningful games in the end of October, is pretty special," Arrieta said. "We've got to be happy with that and use it as motivation moving forward."

These Cubs likely aren't done popping bottles in October, but when and how they get back to this point, and beyond it, is entirely up to them. Cubs fans, however, can go into the long winter with hope once again.