How Cubs built a division champion ready to dominate October for years to come

How Cubs built a division champion ready to dominate October for years to come

What an American League official said one day in spring training remains true in the middle of September: There isn’t another team out there with more talent than the Cubs.

That doesn’t guarantee a parade down Michigan Avenue, because the playoffs can be random and cruel, involving elements like luck, health and matchups. Still, Theo Epstein’s front office and Joe Maddon’s coaching staff created an ideal team for the 162-games-in-183-days marathon, layering depth and versatility into a star-studded roster.

The Cubs clinched the National League Central title late Thursday night and will now advance to consecutive postseasons for only the fourth time in franchise history (1885-86, 1906-08, 2007-08), an unreal statistic and a sharp contrast to what appears to be such a bright future.

“There’s no team I’d rather be going into October with,” Epstein said. “There are never favorites in October the same way there are in the regular season. The regular season is — I know people make fun of me for saying it — but it is a meritocracy.

“The best teams rise to the top. So we’re proud of what we’ve done and the season so far. And then October — you can’t make the same type of proclamations. It’s about rising to the challenge and momentum, playing your best in the biggest spots and getting your breaks.

“It’s a combination of talent, skill and timing. There is truly no other group I’d rather go into October with. I think we’re set up to fight those battles.”

Here’s how the Cubs built a division champion that’s positioned to dominate October for years to come:

• Instead of coasting after a 97-win season and assuming this team would get better, chairman Tom Ricketts authorized a spending spree that approached $290 million, showing more appetite for risk and a degree of financial flexibility that had been in doubt during the rebuilding/learning-curve years for his family’s ownership group.

The Cubs took a big-game pitcher (John Lackey) and a Gold Glove outfielder (Jason Heyward) away from the St. Louis Cardinals, signed the game’s premier super-utility guy to play second base and diversify their lineup (Ben Zobrist), brought back another swingman for their bullpen (Trevor Cahill) and lucked out when a qualifying offer dragged down Dexter Fowler’s market and the Baltimore Orioles tried to slow-play negotiations with the you-go, we-go leadoff guy, leading to a surprise deal in spring training.

The Cubs had already ramped up after an 89-loss season in 2014, firing manager Rick Renteria and giving Maddon a five-year, $25 million contract, investing $155 million in Jon Lester, an All-Star lefty and two-time World Series champion, and adding clubhouse influence and veteran presence behind the plate (Miguel Montero and David Ross) and at the back of their rotation (Jason Hammel).

• Epstein expected those big-market resources when he took over baseball operations in October 2011 but pivoted when a new collective bargaining agreement severely limited spending in the draft and on the international market. The Cubs got creative, working around some of the organization’s financial restrictions and executing a series of brilliant trades that transformed a team that finished in fifth place every season between 2010 and 2014.

The Cubs flipped Scott Feldman to Baltimore in the middle of the 2013 season, turning the final 15 starts in a one-year, $6 million deal into a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and a top setup guy (Pedro Strop). Not that a cold-blooded executive is about to turn sentimental reflecting on how far this franchise has come.

“It’s not like navel-gazing time just yet,” Epstein said. “We got a lot ahead of us. We really do. It kind of all boils down to how you perform in October. We’re rightfully proud of the regular season that we’ve had — and that’s meaningful — but it’s never time to look back.

“It’s time to play for what really matters. We’re on the doorstep of that. That’s what we’re focused on.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champs gear right here]

• Yes, the Cubs had some mismatched pieces, misevaluations, misplaced priorities and an unstable environment that couldn’t lead to long-term success after winning back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008. But the Jim Hendry administration didn’t leave the cupboard bare.

Trading Andrew Cashner, Jeff Samardzija, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Sean Marshall helped the Cubs construct half of an All-Star infield (Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell), acquire another Cy Young Award candidate (Kyle Hendricks) and remodel their bullpen (Justin Grimm, Carl Edwards Jr., Travis Wood).

The Hendry regime also drafted Javier Baez and Matt Szczur and signed Willson Contreras out of Venezuela, creating the network in Latin America that helped Epstein’s group close a $30 million deal with Jorge Soler in the summer of 2012, and later identify Gleyber Torres, the other headliner in the blockbuster trade with the New York Yankees for superstar closer Aroldis Chapman.

• Unfortunately for Cubs fans, Ricketts — an executive with long-range vision and a real interest in the farm system — gained control of the team too late in the game to stack up drafts with high-risk, high-reward, high-priced players, the way Epstein kept betting on amateur prospects for the Boston Red Sox.

But the Cubs crushed a pick they couldn’t afford to whiff on, drafting Kris Bryant No. 2 overall out of the University of San Diego in 2013 after the Houston Astros chose Stanford University pitcher Mark Appel. Bryant evolved into last season’s NL Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Star third baseman and a leading MVP candidate.

A 101-loss season also gave the Cubs the second pick in the Rule 5 draft at the 2012 winter meetings, which turned out to be another great scouting find.

After missing almost three full seasons, Hector Rondon came back from Tommy John surgery and complications with his right elbow to live up to the promise the Cleveland Indians once saw when they named him their minor league pitcher of the year in 2009. Rondon notched 30 saves last season and graciously handled losing his job to Chapman, saying he would do whatever he could to help the team win.

First-round selections Albert Almora Jr. (2012) and Kyle Schwarber (2014) could also be in next year’s Opening Day lineup, assuming Fowler cashes in elsewhere as a free agent and there are no lingering effects from Schwarber’s season-ending knee surgery.

After using 107 picks on arms since 2012, the Epstein administration finally had a drafted-and-developed pitcher break through and make the big-league club this year, with homegrown lefty Rob Zastryzny looking like an interesting option for October.

Drafting pitchers — and waiting around for years hoping they’ll get good enough and stay healthy — won’t matter much if the Cubs can keep identifying high-upside, change-of-scenery guys like lefty Mike Montgomery.

But with all these 20-something stars roaming around the North Side — and promises of a new TV deal and the $600 million Wrigleyville renovation project in full swing — consider this the warning shot heard around the NL Central.

“Everybody’s saying how good we are, and that’s wonderful,” Maddon said. “But I’m telling you — these guys are going to get better. They are that good. They deserve every moment that they’ve achieved to this point of the season. But they’re going to get better, because they just need more experience. And as they gain more experience, we are going to get even better.”

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

Small sample size: A look at Cubs' early-season statistical pace

As the Cubs put the finishing touches on a sweep in Miami, they are now roughly 1/10 of the way through the 2019 season.

If they had their way, they obviously would've preferred to boast a better record than the current 8-9 mark through 17 games, but things are trending in the right direction for most of the club. (Playing a three-game set against the hapless Marlins will certainly help the good vibes.)

But since the Cubs got out to a 1-6 start, they've gone 7-3 and now have a +18 run differential, good for second in the Naional League.

That puts the Cubs on pace to win 76 games with a +171 run differential. For perpsective, the 2018 Cubs won 95 games with only a +116 run differential.

A lot can happen over the 90 percent of the season that remains and The Small Sample Size crowd is out in full force in April, as usual. By themselves, none of these stats really mean anything or tell us much beyond "Player X is off to a hot start" or "Pitcher Y is struggling." 

But that doesn't mean we should just ignore the stats and pace some players are on. Where's the fun in that? 

So let's take a look at some of the early-season stats surrounding the 2019 Cubs:

Javy Baez

El Mago has been red-hot of late, collecting 11 hits in his last 18 at-bats. That currently puts him on a season pace of:

229 hits, 143 runs, 48 doubles, 57 homers, 152 RBI

You can bet he'd finish near the top of NL MVP voting once again if he maintained that pace all year long. (However, he'd still probably lose to Christian Yelich, who picked up right where he left off last season and is currently on pace for 77 homers and 222 RBI. Seriously.)

Baez is the poster child for the small sample size claim. He was hitting just .232 with a .735 OPS as of Saturday morning, and his season pace would've looked a whole lot different had this article come out then. He's in the midst of an upswing, so these numbers are skewed. 

However, with the way he's driving the ball to the opposite field right now and turning singles into doubles, don't be surprised if he approaches the 83 extra-base hits he put up last year.

Willson Contreras

On pace for: 57 HR, 114 RBI, 86 BB, 143 K

...and that's in only 448 projected at-bats. 

Those would certainly be NL MVP caliber numbers from a guy some expected to challenge for the award after his blistering stretch in the middle of 2017. Contreras was so hot that he actually might've approached 30 homers and 100 RBI that year if he hadn't hurt his hamstring and missed a month.

If he stays healthy, his record-setting start to 2019 helps make those benchmarks seem like a possibility once again.

Contreras won't maintain his 1.224 OPS or .766 slugging percentage all season, but he looks like a completely different hitter than he was last year, when he hit just 7 homers in the first half and had only 10 all season.

Jason Heyward

On pace for: 38 HR, 105 RBI, 133 R, 95 BB, 57 K

To put those in perspective, here's Heyward's season average in each category during his first three years in a Cubs uniform: 

9 HR, 55 RBI, 62 R, 46 BB, 73 K

So even with a serious regression from his hot start, it wouldn't take much from Heyward the rest of the way to top his 2016-18 average stat line. 

The power is definitely eye-catching, but the walk-to-strikeout ratio is particularly noteworthy. His command of the strike zone is a huge reason why he's been able to hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS in the first 1/10 of the season.

Heyward has looked so good, he's now hitting fifth in the Cubs — a spot that once belonged to...

Kyle Schwarber

On pace for: 29 HR, 57 RBI, 48 BB, 181 K

Schwarber is in the midst of a tough stretch right now, so these numbers look off — especially the strikeouts (he's whiffed 12 times in his last 5 games). The power is still there, but the RBI total remains low and even the walks are suspiciously below his standards.

Schwarber has a career 13.4 percent walk rate and drew free passes at a 15.3 percent clip last year. This season, he's all the way down to 8.8 percent. 

Daniel Descalso 

On pace for: 86 RBI

Where is everybody who mocked the Descalso signing over the winter? In hiding right now, probably. 

The veteran has been exactly as advertised in the early going, with a professional and advanced approach at the plate. That includes a 7-for-12 mark with runners in scoring position (plus 4-for-7 with runners in scoring position and two outs). 

Descalso has been having some great at-bats, but there's no way those numbers will continue at their current pace all season. So don't bet on 85+ RBI, especially when he's only on track for 419 at-bats.

Ben Zobrist

On pace for: .379 OBP, 86 BB, 67 K, 48 R, 0 XBH

Zobrist turns 38 next month, but there's no way he suddenly lost all of his power. This is a guy who put up double digit homers every season from 2008 through 2017 before hitting only 9 last year. Age may be catching up to him a bit and sapping some of his slug, but he still hit 28 doubles last year in 455 at-bats.

He continues to keep his strikeouts and walks nearly even, as even with a 2-strikeout performance Wednesday night, Zobrist still has more free passes than whiffs this season. Between his 86-walk pace, the .379 OBP and the fact he spends most of his time in the leadoff spot in the Cubs order, it's surprising he's only scored 5 runs so far. That should change once Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo start heating up.

Speaking of...


We don't need to worry about a pace for Bryant and Rizzo. Everybody knows they're struggling. 

This is the only stat you need to know:

Just wait until these guys start hitting. This Cubs offense is going to be a force to be reckoned with all year. (Unless, you know, they "break" in the second half again...)

Now, on to the run prevention...

Pitching stats are not as much fun to project out over a full season simply because they don't play every day and the small sample size carries even more weight (especially for relief pitchers). 

But here are a few fun pace stats for some Cubs arms:

—Cole Hamels is on pace for 29 wins and 0 losses.

—Jose Quintana is projected for 276 strikeouts in 200 innings. (His career high in whiffs was 207 in only 188.2 innings in 2017.)

—Jon Lester is on pace for only 29 starts, which would be the first time he failed to take the ball at least 30 times in a season since 2007.

—Brad Brach is on track for 95 walks in 67.2 innings. He's never walked more than 38 batters in a season (and that came in 79.1 innings in 2015). 

—Kyle Hendricks is ticketed for 133 runs allowed...but only 76 of those would be earned. The Cubs defense has done him no favors to begin the year.

—Pedro Strop is projected to lead the Cubs in saves with...10. He is the only Cubs pitcher to pick up a save through 17 games and he has just the 1 (from April 11 against the Pirates).

—Steve Cishek is on pace for only 67 appearances — a pretty big step down from the 80 games he pitched in a season ago.

—Brandon Kintzler is projected to give up only 58 baserunners in 76.2 innings (48 hits, 10 walks) while striking out 86 batters. He has never finished a season (in which he's made at least 10 appearances) with more strikeouts than innings pitched and his career-low WHIP was 1.065 in 2013, when he surrendered 82 baserunners in 77 innings.

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CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective


CubsTalk Podcast: Todd Hollandsworth gives an outside perspective

Former Cubs TV analyst Todd Hollandsworth talks with Luke & Kap and gives an outside perspective on the 2019 Cubs.

—Holly talks about being in the the TV booth and on the road every day with the Marlins. (0:46)

—Todd shares his thoughts on the 2019 Cubs and how the team was built through the draft. (1:51)

—Holly breaks down Jose Quintana's recent run of great starts. He Also talks about Yu Darvish and if what we saw Monday was for real. (4:03)

—Todd talks about the N.L. Central. Draws similarities to the N.L. East. He says the Cubs still win the division - IF they pitch. (5:37)

—Holly shares his thoughts on former Marlin Christian Yelich and his dominant start to the 2019 season. (8:05)

—Todd talks about the "Yelich" trade and how the deal has worked out (so far) for the Marlins. (11:09)

—Holly discusses Javy Baez sliding into second base and the replay review system in MLB. Where do they go next? How can MLB fix the problem with aggressive base-running vs. being too cautious when sliding. (13:17)


Cubs Talk Podcast


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