Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster


Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster

Major League Baseball had never seen a division like the National League Central in 2015. It’s officially the best ever, and it helped make the Cubs who they are now.

Since the wild-card era began, no division has seen a third-place team finish with more than 93 wins. The 2002 American League West had the Oakland A's with 103 wins, followed by the Los Angeles Angels at 99 and the Seattle Mariners with 93 victories.

The St. Louis Cardinals finished this year with 100 wins and the Pittsburgh Pirates came in at 98 victories, meaning the Cubs and their 97 wins got stuck in third place.

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Since divisional play began in 1969, these Cubs and the 1977 Boston Red Sox are tied with the most wins for a third-place team in baseball history.

The Cubs earned the third-best record in the majors and were rewarded with a one-game playoff against Gerrit Cole and the Pirates on Wednesday night at PNC Park.

"I think it's actually good for us long-term," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "I'd be lying if I said there aren't times where you're frustrated looking at other divisions and you think to yourself that we'd be leading that division and guaranteed a five-game playoff series. But I think it's going to make us a lot better."

Hoyer worked with Theo Epstein when the Red Sox front office had to take down the New York Yankees’ "Evil Empire" in the AL East.

"The Yankees made us a ton better in Boston," Hoyer said. "Having to go up against them, there was no shortcut, no years of backing into winning a division.

"We know the [Pirates and Cardinals] are going to be good for a long time. And we're going to be good. I think we're going to go at each other for a long time. It's going to make all three teams better. We have to realize that.

"You can look at it as a negative, but also I know that if we advance a long way in the playoffs, it's environments like [playing them at Wrigley Field in late September] and environments like we've had in St. Louis and Pittsburgh that made our guys a lot tougher."

Joe Maddon has been making that point at least since spring training, remembering his first last-place season with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006.

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“That was common fodder when I got there: The fact that they had to get out of this division in order to become successful,” Maddon said. “Otherwise, we can’t compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. And that’s all I heard.

“No, no, no, that’s wrong. We’re only going to get good this way. (And) I’ve said that from the beginning, man. You had to win in Boston at Fenway. You get to play there nine (or) 10 times a year. Good.

“Same thing with Yankee Stadium. You had to feel good about walking in that door, and then you could beat them there. And once you do that, then you could win anywhere. Not to go Frank Sinatra right there.”

After losing 96 games in 2007, the Rays won 97 the next year and made it to the World Series.

“It was exciting to play in that division, man,” Maddon said. “It was hot. It was really hot. It was pretty firm. And I think that’s why we got good fast, playing in those venues. Adversarial, tough fans, good teams, you better show up.”

The Cubs weren't expected to contend so soon, not after five straight seasons of fifth-place finishes and a roster packed with young, inexperienced players.

But with an everyday lineup that could feature four rookies, Maddon guided a team that improved 24 games on its 2014 record (73-89).

[SHOP: Buy Cubs playoff gear]

"I love playing in what is perceived to be the best division in baseball," Maddon said. "It's about the end of the season - the last game of the season - and getting to that particular moment. Sometimes, it takes a different route to get there.

"But I really respect what both [the Cardinals and Pirates] have done. I like to believe we've pushed them a bit, too, in this particular season. There was no let-up for anybody.

"That's kinda cool. It's great for baseball. It's great for us. And it really has aided us in getting better."

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below:


Texas Rangers hire Cubs' Shiraz Rehman to be assistant GM

Texas Rangers hire Cubs' Shiraz Rehman to be assistant GM

The changing of the guard continues for the Cubs this offseason. 

After the team hired a new hitting coach yesterday, it was reported today that they're losing a front office member: 

Rehman, who has been with the Cubs in the same position for the last seven years, will reportedly head up the Rangers' analytics department. According to the Chicago Tribune, Rehman's role was " evaluating existing systems, and recognizing and applying solutions in an effort to create competitive advantages for the organization." 

All reports indicate that he'll be doing similar analytic-based work with the Rangers.