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.”
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• 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.”