My first reaction to the Cubs making the World Series was an emotional one. I talked about the waves of joy, relief, and even sadness as the Cubs clinched their first pennant in 71 years. It’s been a remarkable journey for many of us long time Cubs fans. It’s been a journey in which we’ve seen teams that lost direction and yet, Cubs fans never lost hope.
But you don’t need to have been a Cubs fan for the last 70 years to have witnessed an incredible journey. You only need to have been around the last 5 years. The Cubs were a moribund franchise, an organization with a bloated payroll of past-prime veterans and a farm system that was even more barren than we thought at the time. Years of neglect had dried it up. The Cubs were pinning their hopes on the likes of Brett Jackson, Jose Vitters, and Trey McNutt along with young SS Starlin Castro.
The front office had the difficult task of first identifying who and what needed to be kept and what needed to be cleared out in an organization they only knew from the outside. They had to find players they thought would fit their culture and philosophy and not that of the previous regime. As might be expected, some mistakes were made, most notably keeping Jackson, Vitters, and McNutt for too long, but also letting future MLB players like DJ Le Mahieu go for little in return. The Cubs had spent a lot of money on the 2011 draft, the last one of the Hendry era, but they weren’t necessarily the kind of players this front office would have invested in. For the most part the current front office was right, with one notable exception, NLCS co-MVP Javier Baez.
The next step was the task of trying to create value seemingly out of thin air, a task made more difficult by the looming decision to close up some of the draft loopholes that Theo Epstein’s Red Sox had exploited for years. The compensation picks system would be overhauled coupled with the imposing of financial restrictions. No longer could a very good, wealthy team accumulate draft picks by letting unwanted free agents go. No longer could a player make huge bonus demands to ensure he would slip down the draft and get picked by teams like the Red Sox.
The front office would have to adapt. One way they did so was the sign and flip strategy. That is, they would sign players they believed were undervalued. give them an opportunity to play significant roles they may not otherwise have had, then deal them for prospects at the peak of their value. The most successful product of this strategy was Jake Arrieta, who came along with top set-up reliever Pedro Strop in exchange for what amounted to two months of Scott Feldman, a pitcher who had the best half season of his life as a Cubs starter.
The Cubs also had veterans to deal. Matt Garza brought key bullpen arms CJ Edwards and Justin Grimm, but it was another deal with Texas that has made an even bigger impact — and it was a deal that almost never happened.
The Cubs had a deal in place with the Atlanta Braves to exchange veteran starter Ryan Dempster for young RHP Randall Delgado. The deal infamously fell through when Dempster balked at being “blindsided” and refused to go to Atlanta. The Cubs had to quickly search for another trade and settled for what many of us thought was a lesser return at the time, acquiring 3B Christian Villanueva and an unrated, soft-throwing pitching prospect named Kyle Hendricks.
And just like that, the Cubs created 2/3 of their rotation — two of their top 3, in fact almost out of thin air. For an organization that had no pitching prospects and is still looking to produce pitching from within, those two trades were huge. It lessened the need to build a staff through free agency, though that too would play a key role — but only once the Cubs felt they were ready to take that step. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.
While many criticized the Cubs for not quickly building through free agency, the decision not to do so had a two-pronged effect. The first was that they kept the payroll lean and flexible to be used when needed. The second was that the team did not add wins at a time when those wins had negative value in that they would cause the Cubs to slip down the draft. Considering that they could no longer expect good players to slide to them based on bonus demands, it was going to be difficult. Yet, with the system bereft of impact talent, it was more imperative than ever that the Cubs obtain top draft talent, and the only way to do so under the current system was to lose ball games. As usual when there is an attempt to artificially impose uniformity, there are unintended consequences. Tanking has been one of those consequences.
And so while much of the local media howled about losing ballgames and not looking for the quick fix, the Cubs were drafting players like Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber. All three players are expected to be on the World Series roster and Bryant will almost certainly win the NL MVP award.
Scouting hitters is this front office’s specialty. Not only did they draft well, but they also acquired key offensive players via trade. Anthony Rizzo was the first big trade to bring in the player that would become their cornerstone. Dexter Fowler was acquired for the respected Luis Valbuena, but with Bryant ready to take over and the Cubs lacking a CFer/leadoff hitter, Fowler was clearly the better fit. He has also turned out to be the better player overall and has served as a catalyst for the offense. Addison Russell was brought in via a big trade with Oakland to solidify the defense first while they waited for the bat to to develop. All four players have played key roles in the Cubs offensive explosion in the last three NLCS games that put the Cubs in the World Series.
Identifying good young hitters is only part of the story. The Cubs ability to develop them is key as well. Javier Baez was a wild swinger with little to no discipline and no semblance of a plan other than to launch the ball as far as he could on every single swing — which seemingly came on almost every single pitch no matter where it was thrown. The talent was evident but there was a real question as to whether he could ever harness it.
In some ways Baez is symbolic of the organization itself. The Cubs basically had to tear everything down and start from scratch. They sent him back to the Arizona complex in 2012 to orient him on the so-called Cubs Way. There were a lot of things Baez had to learn and unlearn, but what we didn’t know about him at the time was that he had an Einstein-esque baseball IQ. Between his intelligence, instincts, work ethic and the Cubs instruction, support, and patience, it appears that 4 years later, the Cubs may have something very special on their hands, a uniquely talented ballplayer who can help the team in so many different ways.
A similar case is that of Willson Contreras, a player the Cubs exposed to the Rule 5 Draft just two years ago. Another uniquely talented, athletic, passionate ballplayer who sometimes had trouble reigning things in, Contreras appeared on his way out of the organization after a dismal season at Myrtle Beach and a career in which flashes of absolute brilliance were too often overshadowed by aggressive, unforced mistakes. If you took a casual glance at Contreras, you saw a talented but wildly undisciplined player. If you squinted your eyes a little harder, you saw a kid who just wanted to make plays, who would do just about anything to help his team win — he just didn’t know how to best use his talents. With his career with the Cubs in jeopardy, the Cubs sent him to Venezuela — perhaps as a final chance to show what he can do. And Contreras responded. Surrounded by veterans, the light bulb finally went on and Contreras was on his way. His passion is now an asset. Manager Joe Maddon described it as much needed “oxygen” for the team. The difference now is that he channels that passion into his play on the field and he has become what some had seen all along — a play-maker with a knack for coming up big when the team needs it.
Before I get to the final pieces of this rebuild, I want to point out that all along this way, there has been good fortune. As good as the Cubs process is, it is not infallible — but it works much more often than it doesn’t and when lady luck happens to smile on them, they’re ready. The Cubs would not have picked Baez had they been with the organization just one year earlier, but they helped develop him into the player that he is today. Kyle Hendricks was not their first choice — but when given a second chance, the Cubs scouting department plucked a pitcher off the trade list the Rangers were secretly hoping the Cubs would pass over because of his seemingly pedestrian tools. A team could easily have seen the potential in Willson Contreras and plucked him for a mere $50K in the Rule 5 Draft. The Cubs didn’t originally plan on re-signing Dexter Fowler and it looked like he was headed to Baltimore, but one day late in the spring, Fowler and the Cubs surprised us all. It’s hard to imagine this team without those four players, but it very easily could have happened that way. A little good fortune never hurts.
This didn’t just happen all at once and so the Cubs did see this coming. There was always going to be a time when the Cubs would surround their young nucleus with strategic signings. They added an experienced ace in Jon Lester who set the example for how players should prepare. They added two leaders at catcher in David Ross and Miguel Montero who are assets in the clubhouse and also know how to extract the best performance from their pitchers. Ben Zobrist added a versatile veteran who puts the team first and while Jason Heyward hasn’t hit as expected, he has added Gold Glove caliber defense and smart play on the field. The fact that the Cubs built the foundation first helps them absorb the lack of offensive production. Heyward has become a great complimentary player — even if he is an expensive one. But he is still young and talented, he may yet turn things around…and wouldn’t it be great if it happened over the next several games?
The Cubs are more than just a curiosity or a novelty. They are a model franchise — an example of how to build a team the right way and that if you develop a good process when it comes to identifying and developing talent — and then faithfully stick to that process even in a world that craves instant gratification, then you will eventually reap your reward. And that it has happened in 5 years for a team that, long history of failure aside, was in complete disarray as recently as 2011, that is far more interesting, far more remarkable, than breaking a curse that only existed in the heads of fans, the cynical pens of a few writers, and the tired, unimaginative voice of the national media.
The Cubs have written their own narrative. They are now, indisputably. one of the very best organizations in the world of professional sports.
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