Even after winning arguably the greatest Game 7 ever played – and headlining one of the largest gatherings in human history – the Cubs still feel this is more like the beginning than the end.
The Cubs believe they have enough personality, style and crossover appeal to become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors, drawing sellout crowds all across the country and becoming must-see TV.
The Cubs hope they have the homegrown talent and big-market financial muscle to match what the New York Yankees did in 1998, 1999 and 2000, pulling off a three-peat to go with their 1996 World Series title, part of an unbelievable stretch of 24 consecutive winning seasons.
The Cubs talked about this amid the early-morning, champagne-fueled haze on Nov. 3, even before changing back into their street clothes, leaving Progressive Field’s visiting clubhouse and flying back from Cleveland to Chicago.
Once pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Tuesday, and go through their first formal workout at the Sloan Park complex on Wednesday, the celebration will be over. Manager Joe Maddon can start rolling out the mimes, zoo animals and karaoke machines (or whatever else gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss comes up with this spring). But don’t get lost in the distractions – the Cubs are focused on becoming a dynasty.
“We just keep getting better,” Jon Lester said. “That’s, I think, kind of a scary part for the rest of our league for the next however many years.”
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Two years ago, Lester showed up in Mesa, experienced a dead arm and got diagnosed with the yips on Opening Day, making it seem as if that $155 million investment might be doomed from the start. All the Cubs have done since then is win 200 games, five playoff rounds and the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.
Lester has been exactly what the Cubs hoped for, a 200-inning machine, a no-nonsense professional and one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation. The prospects Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer put front and center during their recruiting pitch to Lester have been better than advertised.
Kris Bryant is 25 years old and already a Rookie of the Year, reigning MVP, Hank Aaron Award winner, two-time All-Star and World Series champion. Addison Russell is 23 years old and already an All-Star shortstop. Kyle Schwarber is already a Chicago legend and still hasn’t spent a full season in the big leagues yet. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. will also remain under club control through at least the 2021 season.
“For anybody in this game, there’s a lot of factors you can’t control,” said San Francisco Giants general manager Bobby Evans, who had been an executive for the even-year teams that won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014, “from your health to the performance of your guys to your rosters (that) can be changed overnight in different ways.
“But from the controllable players that they have – and the leadership that they have from the manager to the general manager to Theo – it’s a really great combination of baseball people and elements to a lineup and a rotation and a bullpen that clearly are well-thought-out. And (it) gives me great pleasure to know they’re not in our division.”
The Cubs will also benefit from playing in a National League where so many franchises are playing/tanking for the future and a division populated with small-market teams. The Baseball Prospectus PECOTA system projects the Cubs (91-71) as the only Central team with a winning record – and the St. Louis Cardinals finishing at 76-86 (which would be only their second losing season since 2000).
“We want to compete,” St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. “We think we have talent that’s coming that’s going to be useful in the big leagues. So I don’t feel like in any way that we need to take a two- or three-year timeout.
“When you look at it from just a neutral state, (the Cubs are) built to be successful for many years. But you also have to understand that things sometimes happen. People get hurt. Sometimes people underperform. We’ve entered seasons where we thought Adam Wainwright was going to be our ace – and he ends up not coming out of spring training.
“You adjust, so that’s being able to create enough depth. And if you’re able to do that, it allows you to be successful. Or maybe the other way to think about it is it allows you to withstand some negativity.”
There are legitimate concerns about how the rotation will hold up and where the next wave of pitching will come from. When Epstein talks about avoiding “organizational arrogance,” it’s easy to think of the Bloomberg Businessweek cover from April 2015 heralding a “sports empire” now “in bloom” (after five straight fifth-place finishes, five different managers since 2010 and all the delays/drama/dysfunction surrounding the Wrigley Field renovations).
But it’s not hype anymore to say that the Cubs are positioned to rule baseball for years to come. It’s why Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward turned down the Cardinals last winter and signed his $184 million megadeal with the Cubs, believing this core could mirror the Atlanta Braves teams he grew up watching and broke in with as a 20-year-old kid, blasting a three-run homer off Carlos Zambrano in his first big-league at-bat on Opening Day 2010 at Turner Field.
“You only hope,” Heyward said. “You never know what’s going to happen with stuff. On paper is one thing. God willing, everybody stays healthy. (But) it looks like it could be a lot of fun for a long time.
“I know it’s going to be a lot of fun, because it’s an awesome place, an awesome organization to play for. These guys are very young – and they’re getting a lot of experience early on – and that can make for a lot of confidence-building and a lot of comfort and having that sixth sense on the field.
“(That’s) what you see with really good teams when they make a run like that – most of those guys play together for a while. And we have a chance to do that here.”