The Cubs still feel like they’re at the beginning of a very long runway, even after an unforgettable parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, that Grant Park rally and one of the biggest gatherings in the history of, uh, civilization.
In terms of elation and astonishment, nothing will top the estimated 5 million people who jammed into the streets of Chicago on Friday to celebrate the end of the 108-year drought. But the Cubs didn’t tear down and rebuild their franchise hoping to win one World Series title.
Chairman Tom Ricketts and the three-headed top of baseball operations – Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod – laid out their vision like this to scouts, coaches, the media and season-ticket holders: It could not be about taking one shot or selling out one winter or hoping for one magical season.
Collect enough talent to get into the playoffs, say, seven times in 10 years and eventually you will stay healthy enough, run into the right matchups and have the baseball gods smile upon you. Like getting a perfectly timed rain delay against the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the World Series.
That explains why the San Francisco Giants won titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. More than even-year hocus-pocus, it’s having synergy between the baseball and business sides of the franchise and a coherent strategy for scouting and player development.
In that sense, the Cubs really only just finished Year 2 of that window, 200 regular-season wins combined, last season’s surprise joyride into the National League Championship Series and the 2016 World Series title that will be remembered forever.
“This team is built to be good for a while,” said bench coach Dave Martinez, who was originally drafted by the Cubs in 1983 but appeared in his only playoff games with the 2001 Atlanta Braves. “We got so many young players and we still got kids that are coming up through the system. Theo and Jed and Mr. Ricketts put things together (in a way where) we’re going to be able to compete for a long time.”
Nothing is guaranteed in this game. The rotation has stayed remarkably healthy across the last two years – and where the pitching will come from remains the organization’s biggest question. It will be interesting to see how these Cubs respond to an entire offseason of everyone telling them how they’re legends – if they will remain as hungry and as focused in 2017 and beyond.
But if you were going to invest in a team for the next five years, it would be this one, with Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod all signed through the 2021 season, a timeframe that includes club control over leading MVP candidate Kris Bryant, All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell, NLCS co-MVP Javier Baez, October legend Kyle Schwarber and catcher Willson Contreras.
Joe Maddon – a three-time Manager of the Year – wrote out a World Series Game 7 lineup that featured seven players between the ages of 22 and 27, plus Kyle Hendricks (26), this year’s ERA leader, as the starting pitcher.
“The growth and development from guys like Addie and Javier Baez and Contreras – you just can’t make this stuff up,” said Jake Arrieta, the Cy Young Award winner who has one more season until striking it rich in free agency. “You don’t expect to see the maturity from guys at such a young age.
“And you combine that with guys like Jon Lester and (John) Lackey coming in here and bringing some veteran leadership. And Kyle Hendricks, I mean, what more can you say about that guy?
“It’s been a storybook year. Everybody’s contributed, from the top to the bottom.”
Russell has played in five playoff series before his 23rd birthday. Bryant has already accumulated 112 plate appearances in the postseason. Schwarber still hasn’t spent a full season in the big leagues yet, something Baez did for the first time this year (after a short stint on the disabled list). Albert Almora Jr. became a rookie contributor to a World Series winner and showed he could take over in center field once Dexter Fowler declines the qualifying offer.
“I don’t think it’s an accident,” said Kerry Wood, the special assistant who knows the pressure that comes with bursting onto the scene and playing at Wrigley Field as well as anyone. “It speaks to the job these guys did in putting this team together and putting these personalities in the same clubhouse. And it’s not just this group here. We got a bunch more coming. It kind of changed the way of life in the organization.
“These guys are living the dream. They’re having the time of their life. They’re in their peak (window). We’re going to have the infield for another four or five years. These guys are just going to get better.”
This is what everyone says on stage after the World Series parade, but this time the Cubs actually mean it. Does anyone doubt Schwarber after he recovered from major knee surgery in mid-April in time to change the entire complexion of the World Series?
“I love you guys,” Schwarber said. “We’re world champs. Let’s do it again next year.”