“No,” Addison Russell said with a laugh, he didn’t see this coming when he stopped being Billy Beane’s most prized prospect. Playing for a team on pace for 120-ish wins? Partying in the Celebration Room built into a state-of-the-art clubhouse? Owning this city with the Blackhawks already eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs? “Absolutely not.”
Two years ago, Matt Garza sent a message to Jeff Samardzija through the media: The Cubs are a team without hope. Pitch your way out of Chicago.
Garza had heard enough trade rumors – “I’ll pitch on the freakin’ moon” – and was riding high with the Milwaukee Brewers during the first season of a four-year, $50 million contract. The Brewers improved to 17-6 after Garza beat his old team on April 25, 2014 at Miller Park and would finish that month with 20 wins and a five-and-a-half-game lead in the National League Central.
But the Brewers faded away and finished that season in third place, only two games over .500. Garza is now on the disabled list with a right lat strain. A Milwaukee franchise that once resisted the full-scale teardown and thought bigger than its small market isn’t going for it this year. The Brewers will also probably punt on the 2017 and 2018 major-league seasons and try to follow The Cubs Way.
Hope? That’s so 2014. The Cubs are now a destination where free agents actually take less guaranteed money for the chance to play at Wrigley Field and make history.
This is a team that goes into every game expecting to win, and Tuesday night’s 4-3 victory pivoted in the sixth inning with a big swing from Russell, who had been acquired from the Oakland A’s two years ago in the – wait for it – Samardzija Fourth of July blockbuster deal.
Russell – who’s only 22 years old and still just scratching the surface of his offensive potential – drilled a Carlos Torres fastball into the right-center field gap and hustled for a two-out, two-run triple that broke open a tie game.
“We’re the frontrunners right now,” Russell said. “We’re embracing it. We love it.”
Last year’s Cubs didn’t make it to 10 games above .500 until August, when Russell bumped Starlin Castro off shortstop to stabilize the defense and Joe Maddon aggressively managed his bullpen like it was already October.
These Cubs got to 15-5 with Russell’s clutch hit and Maddon lifting Kyle Hendricks for a pinch-hitter after five innings, getting the game-tying run and using swingman Adam Warren for two scoreless innings.
“Last year, we were just getting a lot of young guys broken in,” Maddon said. “I thought we were good last year, but it took a while to really get it all working. ‘KB’ (Kris Bryant) had to show up. Addison eventually playing shortstop was a big play for us. Starlin going to second base was a big move for us. Dexter (Fowler) getting on fire. (Kyle) Schwarber getting here.
“There were a lot of parts that did not arrive early enough, regardless of lack of experience or we just hadn’t played well enough to that point.”
The Cubs still wound up winning 97 games last season and now look like a well-oiled machine. This began a stretch where the Cubs are scheduled to play 16 of 19 at Wrigley Field (weather permitting) with six straight games against the Brewers (8-12) and wait-until-next-year Atlanta Braves. Tanking or reloading or retooling or whatever you want to call it isn’t as easy as Theo Epstein’s front office made it look.
It takes good scouting, strong player development, big-market spending power and a certain amount of luck. Between 2012 and 2014, the Cubs identified 10 major trades and gave up 13 players (average age: 31) – like Garza – and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22.5) and 95 years of future control. That haul included future Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.
Within that churn, the Cubs also picked up Hendricks from the Texas Rangers in the Ryan Dempster trade minutes before the July 31 deadline in 2012. Hendricks – who is as reliable and as competitive as just about any fifth starter in baseball – allowed one run across five innings to improve to 2-2 with a 3.52 ERA.
A 101-loss season in 2012 also yielded a future Rookie of the Year in Bryant as well as another No. 2 overall pick – in the Rule 5 draft – which yielded Hector Rondon. The closer worked a scoreless ninth inning to notch his fourth save and has now struck out 11 of the 20 batters he’s faced this season.
“We love playing here, but so does everybody else,” Maddon said. “I talked about ‘Embrace the Target.’ When you’re going to play teams that possibly aren’t doing as well, they’re going to come in and there’s going to be 40,000 people. The place is electric all the time. It’s a playoff atmosphere. So you got this big old target right on your chest, and we have to respond to that. To this point, we have.
“We’re learning to play a better, complete brand of baseball.”