How the Cubs built a World Series contender


How the Cubs built a World Series contender

Whether or not the Cubs got here a year ahead of schedule, they have a star manager, a dynamic lineup anchored by MVP and Rookie of the Year candidates and the hottest pitcher on the planet.

Making it to a one-game playoff as the second wild-card team by Year 4 would have sounded completely reasonable when the Cubs put Theo Epstein’s name in lights on the Wrigley Field marquee and gave him the keys to the kingdom as the new president of baseball operations.

But winning 97 games, having the third-best record in baseball and doing it with a middle-of-the-pack payroll? After finishing in fifth place for five years in a row and firing two handpicked managers? By leaning on as many as four rookies in the everyday lineup and turning a fringe pitcher like Jake Arrieta into a potential Cy Young Award winner?

No chance.

But here come the Cubs on Wednesday night at PNC Park, trying to knock out the Pittsburgh Pirates and forever change the balance of power in the National League.

“Nobody set out to just get into the playoffs,” Epstein said. “We want to win a World Series. I think you need to build a great organization to do that. But I feel like we’re real close to having that now. Great organizations play well in October. I hope we’re going to give ourselves a lot of chances to do that in the coming years. But it starts right here, right now in this October.”

[MORE CUBS: Joe Maddon is perfect manager at perfect time for Cubs]

Faced with a new collective bargaining agreement that changed the rules of engagement in the draft and on the international market — and restricted by the leveraged partnership between the Ricketts family and Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. (in a deal that included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago) — the Cubs lost 286 games and wrote off three major-league seasons.

Internally, the Cubs point to 10 major trades engineered during those three years. Within that churn, they gave up 13 players (average age: 31) and eight years of future control for 17 prospects (average age: 22 1/2) and 95 years of future control.

Dale Sveum didn’t take the Cubs from Point A to Point B to Point C, but he did hire pitching coach Chris Bosio, his old buddy from the Milwaukee Brewers, and help establish the sign-and-flip program, a competitive attitude and a sophisticated game-planning system.

“I don’t like losing, and it was very difficult,” Bosio said. “But I believed in what Theo and Jed (Hoyer) were talking about. They believed in what me and (coaches Mike Borzello and Lester Strode) brought to the table. And when we had the opportunity to get these guys, we were going to make the most of it.

“It really doesn’t matter if it’s a Jason Berken or a Jake Arrieta, our job is to try to get everything we can out of these guys at that given moment.”

[MORE CUBS: Baseball’s toughest division ever made Cubs better faster]

Wrigleyville became a land of opportunity. The Cubs bought low on first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a former Boston Red Sox prospect who had bombed with the San Diego Padres in 2011 and had a close relationship with general manager Hoyer and vice president Jason McLeod.

Hector Rondon — a Tommy John case in the Cleveland Indians system — could gradually develop from a Rule 5 guy to a 30-save closer this year.

Chris Coghlan — a former Rookie of the Year with the Florida Marlins — could sign a minor-league deal and work his way out of Triple-A Iowa and put up 25 homers, 53 doubles and an OPS around .800 across the last two seasons.

Luis Valbuena — a utility infielder claimed off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays on April 4, 2012 — could show enough to become a centerpiece in last winter’s deal with the Houston Astros that yielded centerfielder/leadoff guy Dexter Fowler (102 runs).

Another secret to Arrieta’s success after that Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season:

“It just so happens when we got Jake, we were in need of bodies,” Bosio said. “It was hard for us to fill out a pitching staff that could compete. And slowly we started getting the position players, and then we started acquiring more pitching. And we’re not done yet, by no means. This is not the finished product. I hope everybody understands that.”

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs believe Jake Arrieta will be unstoppable in October]

“Of course,” Arrieta said, that trade became a career-defining moment that set the stage for his first playoff start on Wednesday night. “It was approaching that period of time when I was with Baltimore that I knew things might happen. And they did.

“I was embraced by everybody. Everybody made me feel extremely welcome, and the comfort level was there from the get-go. It was like a seamless transition.

“I came over here and started doing some things I knew I was capable of doing to help me be more consistent. The momentum just continued to roll.”

But the seemingly constant turnover made it difficult to create a cohesive clubhouse culture or build a sturdy rotation for October.

So the Cubs overpaid for Jon Lester — partially financing the $155 million megadeal with money leftover from the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes — and signed glue guys like catcher David Ross and outfielder Chris Denorfia.

Chairman Tom Ricketts authorized Epstein’s front office to bank the Tanaka funds, basically creating a more general fund for baseball operations, a firewall unavailable to the Jim Hendry administration.

[MORE CUBS: Ready for Pittsburgh: Cubs storm into playoffs with 97 wins]

Ricketts had a long-term vision, a genuine interest in scouting and a very optimistic view of player development. The chairman personally visited with Jorge Soler’s family during a trip to the Dominican Republic before the Cuban outfielder signed in the summer of 2012, getting $30 million guaranteed.

Without tanking, the Cubs never would have had access to Kris Bryant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft and an All-Star third baseman already.

Between the 2013 and 2014 drafts, teams spent 80 first-round picks on prospects. Twelve players have made it to the big leagues already — two while wearing a Cubs uniform — and most making a minimal impact.

Bryant is a 6.0 WAR player while Kyle Schwarber — an Indiana University catcher/outfielder viewed as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014 — just put up 16 homers and 43 RBIs in 69 games.

“All the heavy lifting was done prior to me coming in here,” said Joe Maddon, who might win his third Manager of the Year award anyway. “The infrastructure was set up. They took a beating doing the right things. And then all of a sudden our guys are playing like they are.”

After Game 162 last season, Rizzo declared it was time to compete and predicted a division title in January. Why was the All-Star first baseman so confident when no one else seemed to be that bullish?

“You just felt it,” Rizzo said. "That (Jeff) Samardzija/(Jason) Hammel trade (for Addison Russell), you just felt kind of the winds turn. We went into spring training all prepared with our expectations to win the World Series. And we got to keep going for that."

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester saw a start like this coming

Jon Lester had easily his worst outing of the year, allowing the Cardinals to score eight runs on seven hits, the veteran All-Star only managed three innings before Joe Maddon turned to his bullpen. 

The Cardinals would take game two of the series by the score of 18 to 5, and while none of the Cubs pitchers could silence the Cardinal bats, Lester didn't shy away from his poor outing. 

"You know, I don't want to chalk this up as bad days happen," said Lester. "I think mechanically this has kinda been coming." 

Lester knew he was struggling to hit his spots, and while his ERA was a sparkling 2.58 coming into this start, his peripheral stats had him pegged as a potential regression candidate in the second half of the season.

His 4.35 FIP and 3.30 walks per nine innings show a pitcher who is relying heavily on his defense to get outs, which isn't surprising for a 33-year-old veteran but the walks are a concern. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was aware Lester had been working on his mechanics, but even he was surprised that Lester's start went downhill so quickly. 

"I thought he had good stuff to start the game, hitting [92-93 mph] and I'm thinking this might be a good day," said Maddon. "But you could just see from the beginning he was off just a little bit." 

Over Lester's last four starts his ERA has been an uncharacteristic 4.57, issuing 10 walks over those four starts, and only making it past the 6th inning once. At this point of Lester's career, he knows the best way for him to get outs isn't through strikeouts but by inducing soft contact and avoiding walks. 

And while both his hard contact rate and walks have increased this season, Lester's experience and high baseball I.Q. has allowed him to navigate his way through sticky situations. 

"I've been getting outs," Lester said candidly. "I just feel like when I've had that strikeout or I have a guy set up for that pitch I haven't been able to execute it." 

And while this outing was one to forget, it's at least a positive sign that Lester is aware of his issues on the mound. The veteran knows how to get outs and he knows what he needs to do to be successful in the latter part of his career. He just needs to get back to executing those pitches. 

Just don't expect Lester to dive head first into the analytics on how to fix his issues, he'll stick to hard work and baseball common sense. 

"I'm not too concerned with the analytic B.S., I'm worried about my mechanical fix for my next start." 

Cubs set the wrong kind of history in blowout

Cubs set the wrong kind of history in blowout

Cubs fans had plenty to cheer about late in Friday's game against the Cardinals, but not in the way they expected.

With St. Louis absolutely wearing out the Cubs pitching staff in an 18-5 blowout, Joe Maddon turned to a trio of position players to pitch.

In front of 41,077 people at Wrigley Field for the second game of the official second half of the season, Tommy La Stella came on to pitch for the Cubs with 2 outs in the top of the sixth inning. After La Stella got 4 outs, it was Victor Caratini's turn for the eighth inning.

The Cubs have actually used multiple position players as a pitcher before, but it was back on June 16, 1884 in a 20-9 loss, according to historian Ed Hartig. Obviously, the game of baseball was quite different back then.

But just using two position players on the mound wasn't enough for this wacky day at the ballpark.

Ian Happ got the nod for the ninth inning on the mound, serving as the third different position player on the mound. He joked he was using his sinker effectively and that he's now the Cubs clubhouse leader in ERA after not giving up a run in his inning of work.

Was there a friendly competition between Happ, Caratini and La Stella?

"Yes," Happ said. "I won." 

How did Maddon determine who would get the opportunity to make history?

Well, for starters, the process began with getting a certain player OUT of the lineup.

"I had to take Rizzo out of the game because he would've been badgering me the whole time," Maddon laughed. "So it started by getting Rizzo out, and that made my decision-making process a lot easier. Otherwise just imagine him harping in your ear constantly that he wants to pitch and every time I go out to the mound and the game may be lopsided as I'm maybe bringing somebody else in, he reminds me.

"At some point, hopefully in a good situation where we're leading [he can get in and pitch]."

Seeing a position player pitch has actually been a pretty common occurence under Maddon as he's done everything he can to limit the stress on the bullpen:

"I think the fans kinda started to enjoy it, too, which is always fun when you're getting blown out," said Kris Bryant, who connected on his 11th homer of the season in the blowout loss. "Those guys stepped up for us to save the bullpen. So there ya go. We're making history."

Meanwhile, on the other side, Matt Carpenter had a record-setting game.

Before being removed from the game in the sixth inning, Carpenter smashed 3 homers and 2 doubles and drove in 7 runs. It tied a Cardinals record for total bases (16) while tying the MLB record for most extra-base hits in a game (5):

It also was only the second recorded game in MLB history where a player had 3 doubles and 2 homers. The other? Bryant, of course — in Cincinnati in 2016.

Of course, the fact he did it all before the game reached the seventh inning is remarkable:

Offensively, the Cubs left 12 men on base, which would normally be the focal point of ire for the fanbase if not for the rest of the day's events...