Cubs

The moment Theo Epstein knew Cubs would no longer fear Cardinals

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AP

The moment Theo Epstein knew Cubs would no longer fear Cardinals

ST. LOUIS – After a century of waiting, the Cubs won their first playoff series at Wrigley Field on October 13, 2015, unleashing so much energy that you could feel the press box shaking, hear the crowd deliriously chanting “LAC-KEY! LAC-KEY!” and sense the heated rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals would never be the same again.

“That was a really transformative moment for us,” Theo Epstein said. “That was the point at which we no longer feared them.”

Epstein spoke carefully before Tuesday night’s game at Busch Stadium, not wanting to jinx it or get too far ahead of himself, and the magic number to celebrate a second straight National League Central title would remain stuck at one with an 8-7 loss in front of 41,944. But Epstein didn’t need to be drenched in champagne and have a beer in his hand to appreciate how the Cubs have already shifted the balance of power in the division.  

After building two World Series teams for the Boston Red Sox and ending an 86-year championship drought that haunted New England, Epstein took over baseball operations at Clark and Addison with a “Baseball is Better” press conference on Oct. 25, 2011 that featured his name up in lights on the iconic marquee and a promise to build a scouting-and-player-development machine.

Three days later, the Cardinals won their 11th World Series title in the walk year for Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, giving Epstein a new Evil Empire to take down after his epic battles against the New York Yankees.

“When I think back to that time with the Red Sox,” Epstein said, “I remember with the Yankees when I first got there I felt like we kind of feared them a little bit. And then we were able to knock them off in ’04. It changed the dynamic a little bit, at least how we felt about them. We respected them, but didn’t fear them.

“I think, in a way, the same thing is happening with the Cardinals.”

Epstein feels like that 2015 NL Division Series is the one that gets overlooked while accounting for this golden age of baseball on the North Side. The Cubs have won 288 regular-season games since the beginning of the 2015 season, the franchise’s best three-year stretch in more than a century (300 wins between 1909 and 1911). Since 1940, the Cubs have only had two other runs with at least three consecutive winning campaigns: 1967-72 and 2007-09.

In beating the Cardinals, Anthony Rizzo validated his faith during the rebuilding years and Kyle Schwarber added to his legend by launching a ball onto a Wrigley Field video board. Young players like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Javier Baez developed their muscle memory in big games. Kyle Hendricks – who would get the ball in a World Series Game 7 for the ages – made his first career playoff start.

That postseason surge also helped underwrite an offseason spending spree on free agents that zoomed toward $290 million, landing World Series MVP Ben Zobrist, ex-Cardinal Jason Heyward, future Cardinal Dexter Fowler and John LAC-KEY, who gets to start a Big Boy Game on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, a place where The Cardinal Way doesn’t have the same intimidation factor anymore.

“When you can win a division with them in it, it means a lot,” Epstein said. “When you can get by them in the postseason, it means a lot, because they’re very successful at what they do.  

“We will always respect them. That’s what makes it meaningful to beat them and to do what we’ve done relative to them the last three years. But I think there’s no fear there.”

Jon Lester the most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester the most important signing in Cubs history

Jon Lester became the most important signing in Cubs history when he agreed to a six-year, $155 million contract to be the ace of the Cubs.

He spurned his old team — the Red Sox — along with a handful of other teams ready to pony up the nine-figure deal necessary to acquire the frontline starter. By choosing the Cubs, Lester accelerated Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer's famous "Plan," legitimizing Chicago as a free agent destination and as an up-and-coming perennial playoff team.

"This signing really marks a transition of sorts for the Cubs, the start of a period where we are clearly very serious about bringing a World Series to the Cubs and the people of Chicago," Epstein said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

Inking Lester to a megadeal was a calculated risk, but all $100 million contracts are. Here's a closer look at the Cubs 100 million dollar men:

Nov. 30, 2006 - The Cubs introduce Alfonso Soriano

Back in 2007, the Cubs needed to make a splash and did so by signing the top free agent hitter on the market.

The Cubs inked Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million dollar contract — then, the largest in franchise history. The Cubs had their leadoff hitter — fresh off becoming the fourth member of the 40-40 club — to go along with a new manager in Lou Piniella. Soriano made two All-Star teams for the Cubs in 2007 and 2008 while playing a key role on both division-title winning teams.

However, his time with the Cubs will often be remembered by his offensive decline, his subpar play in the outfield, and his eventual trade to the Yankees. While his overall body of work was statistically respectable, his output did not match the $136 million the Cubs invested in him.

Dec. 15, 2014 - The Cubs introduce Jon Lester

Like the signing of Soriano, the reeling in of Lester to Wrigley Field was paired with the hiring of another new big name manager, Joe Maddon.

Three years into his megadeal, Lester is 43-25 with a 3.33 ERA in 96 starts. The 2016 All-Star and Cy Young runner-up has done some of his best work in the postseason, where he's 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA in his last nine postseason appearances — three of which came in the 2016 World Series.

Lester's tireless work ethic off the field and his veteran influence in a young Cubs clubhouse has made this signing a smashing success. 
    
Dec. 15, 2015 - The Cubs introduce Jason Heyward

One year to the day after introducing Lester, Jason Heyward met with the Chicago media after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract — the richest in franchise history.

Heyward was coming off one of his best offensive seasons (.289, 13 HR, 60 RBI with the Cardinals) and his third Gold Glove in four seasons but the prized free agent struggled from the start in Chicago. Taking Heyward away from the Cardinals and signing baseball's top free agent prize ended up creating an outfield log jam in Chicago.

Heyward's speech during the rain delay in Game 7 against the Indians will most likely end up being the highlight of his Cubs career. The post-World Series championship offseason storyline of Heyward rectifying his broken swing was entertaining to follow on social media, but his 2017 slash line of .259/.326/.389 is clearly not worth the $184 million he signed for.

The future is now

"I believe in the plan that they have in place for the future of the Cubs."

That's what Lester said back on Dec. 15, 2014.

That statement still holds true today. Lester remains the anchor of the Cubs staff surrounded by Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana with reinforcements on the way. Regardless of any additions or subtractions, the Cubs will again be one of baseball's World Series favorites entering 2018 and the reliable lefty will be at the center of it all.

Halfway home, the $155 million deal has been "smart money" spent on Lester, the most important signing in Cubs franchise history.

14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

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USA TODAY

14 amusing observations from the 2017 MLB Winter Meetings

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The MLB Winter Meetings are exactly as advertised.

It was my first trip to what is essentially baseball's biggest trade show and the four days in Orlando went by like a blur even though there were very few moves actually made.

The two Chicago teams combined for just three moves — and all of them from the Cubs' perspective (one of which — Drew Smyly — may not even pitch in 2018).

Throughout the week at Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, I rounded up some of the most amusing behind-the-scenes observations with help from the NBC Sports Chicago crew (Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon, Vinnie Duber):

—A Red Sox fan intercepting David Ross in the hotel lobby and telling him over and over again, "I'm a SAWX fan, I'm a SAWX fan; I love you, bro," in one of the thickest Boston accents I've ever heard.

—A kid wearing a bright pink suit (like something out of "Dumb and Dumber") trying to get a job.

A White Sox person saw the young man and noted: "If I wore that suit, I would look like a bottle of Pepto Bismol."

—A svelte Kyle Schwarber showed up at the Winter Meetings, driving some 90 miles from the Tampa Bay area to visit with Cubs personnel. He didn't talk to the media, but he certainly looked to be in the "best shape of his life."

When asked about Schwarber representing the Cubs in the ESPN Body Issue, Theo Epstein laughed and said, "I'll let you write about that." (Joke's on Theo because that's exactly what I just did.)

—Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto nearly sent Chuck Garfien to the disabled list with an agressive revolving-door maneuver.

—Scott Boras walked through the hotel flanked by his muscle and his own camera crew. Kelly Crull accidentally got on the escalator right behind Boras and in an effort to escape the TV shot, started running up the down escalator...in heels.

—Scott Changnon and I clearly have no idea what we're doing:

—During our Facebook Live Tuesday, Jed Hoyer walked by in the background on the phone, maybe closing out the final details of the Drew Smyly or Brandon Morrow deal?

Live from Day 2 of the MLB Winter Meetings

It's Day 2 of the Winter Meetings! Chuck Garfien, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki will answer your questions about the latest Cubs and White Sox rumors!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Tuesday, December 12, 2017

—10 minutes after Hoyer walked through the background of our Facebook Live, Theo Epstein ran past the camera as Chuck and Vinnie discussed potential free agent targets for the White Sox.

—A man in a Hawaiian shirt photobombed Wednesday's Facebook Live behind Chuck, Kelly and Vinnie. (Side note: I totally messed up by not packing a Hawaiian shirt for the Winter Meetings.)

MLB Winter Meetings Day 3

Kelly Crull, Chuck Garfien and Vinnie Duber are live from the MLB Winter Meetings. What's new with the Cubs and White Sox?

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

—Joe Maddon wore the same olive green blaze he wore to the White House earlier this year and knew full well what he was doing, as he joked about it with reporters.

—Boras stood on a literal pedestal for his hour-long media session Wednesday, stepping up on a sturdy plastic camera case to help all three dozen media cameras catch his entire press conference.

—A woman in a Christmas-themed top hat walking her little pug around the lobby on a leash, but it was slow going as baseball men and women kept stopping them to pet the very good dog.

—Some dude's sneezing in the media workroom was the real star of the show. Never heard anything like it in my life before. Sounded literally like the devil was coming out of his nose.

—The work ethic of people in baseball is mind-bottling to me. 

Not only the front office members, like the Cubs' staff who went from playing deep into October for the third straight fall to preparing for free agency, weighing trade options, scouting and — this winter — pulling all-nighters to put together a proposal for Shohei Ohtani.

But baseball media members are ridiculously hard-working. These people spent all year covering 162-game seasons plus 6+ weeks of spring training and then another month of postseason and now, two weeks before Christmas, they're pulling 15-hour days during the Winter Meetings. 

Yes, it's a really cool job and we get paid to cover a game and hang around professional athletes, but it's also a lot of work and the people who have done this for a lifetime are so impressive.