Whether or not the Cubs got here a year ahead of schedule, they have a star manager, a dynamic lineup anchored by MVP and Rookie of the Year candidates and the hottest pitcher on the planet.
Making it to a one-game playoff as the second wild-card team by Year 4 would have sounded completely reasonable when the Cubs put Theo Epstein’s name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee and gave him the keys to the kingdom as the new president of baseball operations.
But winning 97 games, having the third-best record in baseball and doing it with a middle-of-the-pack payroll? After finishing in fifth place for five years in a row and firing two handpicked managers? By leaning on as many as four rookies in the everyday lineup and turning a fringe pitcher like Jake Arrieta into a potential Cy Young Award winner?
But here come the Cubs on Wednesday night at PNC Park, trying to knock out the Pittsburgh Pirates and forever change the balance of power in the National League.
“Nobody set out to just get into the playoffs,” Epstein said. “We want to win a World Series. I think you need to build a great organization to do that. But I feel like we’re real close to having that now. Great organizations play well in October. I hope we’re going to give ourselves a lot of chances to do that in the coming years. But it starts right here, right now in this October.”
Faced with a new collective bargaining agreement that changed the rules of engagement in the draft and on the international market — and restricted by the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (in a deal that included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago) — the Cubs lost 286 games and wrote off three major-league seasons.
Internally, the Cubs point to 10 major trades engineered during those three years. Within that churn, they gave up 13 players (average age: 31) and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22 1/2) and 95 years of future control.
Dale Sveum didn’t take the Cubs from Point A to Point B to Point C, but he did hire pitching coach Chris Bosio, his old buddy from the Milwaukee Brewers, and help establish the sign-and-flip program, a competitive attitude and a sophisticated game-planning system.
“I don’t like losing, and it was very difficult,” Bosio said. “But I believed in what Theo and Jed (Hoyer) were talking about. They believed in what me and (coaches Mike Borzello and Lester Strode) brought to the table. And when we had the opportunity to get these guys, we were going to make the most of it.
“It really doesn’t matter if it’s a Jason Berken or a Jake Arrieta, our job is to try to get everything we can out of these guys at that given moment.”
Wrigleyville became a land of opportunity. The Cubs bought low on first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a former Boston Red Sox prospect who had bombed with the San Diego Padres in 2011 and had a close relationship with general manager Hoyer and vice president Jason McLeod.
Hector Rondon — a Tommy John case in the Cleveland Indians system — could gradually develop from a Rule 5 guy to a 30-save closer this year.
Chris Coghlan — a former Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins — could sign a minor-league deal and work his way out of Triple-A Iowa and put up 25 homers, 53 doubles and an OPS around .800 across the last two seasons.
Luis Valbuena — a utility infielder claimed off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays on April 4, 2012 — could show enough to become a centerpiece in last winter’s deal with the Houston Astros that yielded centerfielder/leadoff guy Dexter Fowler (102 runs).
Another secret to Arrieta’s success after that Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season:
“It just so happens when we got Jake, we were in need of bodies,” Bosio said. “It was hard for us to fill out a pitching staff that could compete. And slowly we started getting the position players, and then we started acquiring more pitching. And we’re not done yet, by no means. This is not the finished product. I hope everybody understands that.”
“Of course,” Arrieta said, that trade became a career-defining moment that set the stage for his first playoff start on Wednesday night. “It was approaching that period of time when I was with Baltimore that I knew things might happen. And they did.
“I was embraced by everybody. Everybody made me feel extremely welcome, and the comfort level was there from the get-go. It was like a seamless transition.
“I came over here and started doing some things I knew I was capable of doing to help me be more consistent. The momentum just continued to roll.”
But the seemingly constant turnover made it difficult to create a cohesive clubhouse culture or build a sturdy rotation for October.
So the Cubs overpaid for Jon Lester — partially financing the $155 million megadeal with money leftover from the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes — and signed glue guys like catcher David Ross and outfielder Chris Denorfia.
Chairman Tom Ricketts authorized Epstein’s front office to bank the Tanaka funds, basically creating a more general fund for baseball operations, a firewall unavailable to the Jim Hendry administration.
Ricketts had a long-term vision, a genuine interest in scouting and a very optimistic view of player development. The chairman personally visited with Jorge Soler’s family during a trip to the Dominican Republic before the Cuban outfielder signed in the summer of 2012, getting $30 million guaranteed.
Without tanking, the Cubs never would have had access to Kris Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft and an All-Star third baseman already.
Between the 2013 and 2014 drafts, teams spent 80 first-round picks on prospects. Twelve players have made it to the big leagues already — two while wearing a Cubs uniform — and most making a minimal impact.
Bryant is a 6.0 WAR player while Kyle Schwarber — an Indiana University catcher/outfielder viewed as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014 — just put up 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 69 games.
“All the heavy lifting was done prior to me coming in here,” said Joe Maddon, who might win his third Manager of the Year award anyway. “The infrastructure was set up. They took a beating doing the right things. And then all of a sudden our guys are playing like they are.”
After Game 162 last season, Rizzo declared it was time to compete and predicted a division title in January. Why was the All-Star first baseman so confident when no one else seemed to be that bullish?
“You just felt it,” Rizzo said. "That (Jeff) Samardzija/(Jason) Hammel trade (for Addison Russell), you just felt kind of the winds turn. We went into spring training all prepared with our expectations to win the World Series. And we got to keep going for that."