Five-year facelift: Constructing the Cubs

Five-year facelift: Constructing the Cubs

Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein. Image: Brian Cassella

Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein. Image: Brian Cassella

The Chicago Cubs’ final game of the 2011 season – a 9-2 loss to Bud Black’s San Diego Padres – featured an interesting mix.

Starlin Castro, who led the team with 3.0 WAR, was leading off and playing shortstop, while rookie DJ LeMahieu entered the game to replace Aramis Ramirez at third base before being traded to the Rockies in December.

Ryan Dempster allowed nine earned runs in taking the loss, while battery-mate Koyie Hill concluded the first year of a three-season run in which his big-league batting average dropped from .194 (in 134 at-bats) to .179 (39 at-bats) and finally .155 (58 at-bats with the Marlins) before hanging them up after a stint with the Phillies in 2014.

Among players with at least 250 at-bats that season, only Castro and Ramirez hit better than the .276 batting averages shared by Darwin Barney (now a backup infielder with the Blue Jays) and Marlon Byrd (now a two-time drug cheat). 

The Cubs gave a combined 33 starts to Casey Coleman (6.40 ERA) and Rodrigo Lopez, whose 4.42 ERA was actually better than the trio of Dempster (4.80 ERA in 34 starts), Carlos Zambrano (4.82 in 24) and Randy Wells (4.99 in 23). 

At least they had Matt Garza (10-10, 3.32 ERA) around to throw 198 innings, while Jeff Samardzija and Sean Marshall more than held their own in the bullpen. Even Kerry Wood was able to whiff 57 in 51 frames in what proved to be his penultimate season – he called time on his career after just 8.2 innings in 2012.

The lineup for Chicago’s 2011 season-ending 91st defeat of the year didn’t feature home run leader Carlos Pena (28) or Alfonso Soriano, who posted a .289 OBP and figured to be the team’s highest-paid player for the next three seasons. But the game was still notable for its links to the Cubs’ bright future – those links just happened to be in the opposition dugout and corporate boxes.

Jason McLeod, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Image: Phil Velasquez

Jason McLeod, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Image: Phil Velasquez

Man with a plan

Within a few weeks of wrapping up their second consecutive losing season, the Cubs agreed on a five-year deal that would pry Theo Epstein out of Boston, where he helped engineer the Red Sox’s drought-breaking 2004 World Series victory.     

As one of his first acts as new president of baseball operations, Epstein quickly appointed a pair of old Red Sox pals who at the time held prominent positions within the Padres organisation – Jed Hoyer joined as executive vice-president/general manager and Jason McLeod came aboard to head up scouting and player development.

As if that raid on Padre personnel wasn’t enough, the Cubs then turned their attention to their playing stocks. In the first week of the new year they acquired first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who had just hit .141 with one home run in 49 games with San Diego. (Hoyer’s connection to Rizzo has been well-documented – before bringing him to Chicago, he drafted Rizzo as assistant general manager for the Red Sox, and then acquired him in his time as Padres GM.)

Cubs fans have plenty to like about that trade – not to mention the subsequent contract that essentially locked up Rizzo for nine years at a relative bargain of just $73 million. 

But to give some perspective to how much their roster has changed in just five years, that 91-loss team from 2011 was paying eight guys more than 26-year-old Rizzo will make in 2016 – oh, and only one of those eight was even in his 20s at the time.

In light of the season the Cubs are putting together, it’s with good reason the appointment of Epstein and the trade for Rizzo stand out as defining acquisitions that helped turn around a franchise that finished 16 games out of first in 2010 and 25 off the pace in 2011. 

Perhaps the most indicative aspect of the overhaul Epstein embarked upon when he arrived is that only three players on the Cubbies’ current 25-man roster were part of the organisation before he walked through the door. 

Kudos if you guessed fourth outfielder Matt Szczur (a fifth-rounder drafted by the Cubs in 2010), back-up infielder Javier Baez (the No.9 overall selection in 2011 – the last first-round pick of former GM Jim Hendry’s tenure) and recently promoted catcher Willson Contreras (signed out of the Dominican in 2009) who didn't take long to feel at home at Wrigley.

But what about the rest of baseball’s best lineup? How did they all come together so quickly?

Adidas made it clear how they felt about the Cubs starting 2014 with Kris Bryant in the minors. Image: Adidas

Adidas made it clear how they felt about the Cubs starting 2014 with Kris Bryant in the minors. Image: Adidas

Draft dominance and trade triumphs 

Well, it’s fair to say the Cubs have made the most of their first-round picks since Epstein took the reins. 

Kyle Schwarber (No.4 overall, 2014) looked odds-on to build on his historic postseason power display before a collision with Dexter Fowler in the opening week of the season shelved him for the year; Kris Bryant (No.2, 2013) has loomed large at Wrigley Field since Adidas ensured he loomed large over Addison St; and Albert Almora Jr (No.6, 2012) hit a nifty .318 in 54 games at Triple-A before getting called up to The Show.

Then, of course, there has been the steady flow of shrewd trades. 

Before they got around to completing the Rizzo deal, the Cubs traded away left-handed reliever Sean Marshall – their third most valuable player in 2011 (according to Baseball-Reference WAR) – for a three-player package that included Travis Wood.

At the 2012 trade deadline, they shipped veteran Dempster to the Rangers to land Kyle Hendricks. Twelve months later, they dealt Garza to Texas in return for four players, including Justin Grimm. (For what it’s worth, Garza arrived in Chicago from Tampa Bay in pre-Epstein 2011 as part of a deal that saw the Cubs say farewell to five players, most notably Chris Archer.)

But these were small potatoes compared with what was to come.

In July 2013, they flipped Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger for Pedro Strop and Jake Arrieta, who has somehow morphed into a significantly more valuable pitcher than anyone – except maybe Arrieta himself – could ever have imagined.

Almost a year to the day later, Addison Russell headlined a package the Cubs got from the A’s (which also included Billy McKinney and Dan Straily) in return for half a season of Jeff Samardzija (who has since bounced from the White Sox to the Giants) and Jason Hammel (who made a dozen starts for Oakland before promptly returning to Wrigleyville on a two-year, $20 million deal). 

Meanwhile, that trade with the A’s also laid the foundation for a couple of other moves.

The addition of Russell allowed the Cubs to offload Starlin Castro (and the $38 million they owed him) to the Yankees for Adam Warren, who will make just $1.7 million this season. 

McKinney is still just 21 and kicking around in Double-A, while Straily was packaged up with Luis Valbuena six months later in a deal that brought over Dexter Fowler from the Astros for the 2015 season.

Elsewhere along the line, the Cubs traded minor leaguers Jeferson Mejia and Zack Godley to the Diamondbacks to add catcher Miguel Montero (who had three years and a reasonable $40 million left on his contract); sent Arodys Vizcaino (and three international signing bonus slots) to the Braves for Tommy La Stella (and one international signing bonus slot); and brought in Clayton Richard from the Pirates in exchange for a few bucks.

Jason Heyward reportedly left the Cardinals to join a division rival for less money. Image: Flickr

Jason Heyward reportedly left the Cardinals to join a division rival for less money. Image: Flickr

Splashing the cash

It’s also nice to be able to flex some financial muscle when the opportunity arises – which in the past two years seems to be right in the thick of the festive season. 

This past offseason landed Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million), Ben Zobrist (four years, $56 million), John Lackey (two years, $32 million) and Trevor Cahill (one year, $4.25 million), while December 2014 signalled the arrivals of Jon Lester (minimum six years, $155 million), David Ross (two years, $5 million) and Hammel.

Throw in the $30 million, nine-year deal they dished out for Jorge Soler in 2012 and the addition of Hector Rondon in the Rule 5 draft the same year and it’s a big enough recent haul to make any big-market franchise blush. 

The cherry on top is Fowler, who initially turned down the Cubs’ $15.8 million qualifying offer after the 2015 season, then reportedly backed out of a three-year deal with the Orioles to return to Wrigley at a fraction of the price.

The ironic part of all that spending is that this year’s Cubs team is seventh among the 30 clubs when it comes to total payroll, after actually ranking higher (sixth) in that 91-loss disaster of a season five years ago.

And while one reason for that is they aren’t forking out $19 million for Alfonso Soriano and his -0.2 WAR, another is that Chicago has become a bit of a destination club for big-ticket free agents – Heyward, Zobrist and Fowler all reportedly turning down bigger offers to play under unorthodox manager Joe Maddon.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon is pulling all the right strings. Image: Jasen Vinlove

Cubs manager Joe Maddon is pulling all the right strings. Image: Jasen Vinlove

The magic touch

If Epstein is the face of the makeover, Maddon is the makeup kit – a bottomless bag of tricks that has taken the roster Epstein assembled and brought out the very best in every aspect of it. 

Whether he’s paying tribute to Tommy Tutone or hiring mimes and magicians, Maddon has never been afraid of taking an unconventional approach. But don’t let the eccentricity fool you; he is as adept at managing late-inning match-ups as he is the different personalities that make up a clubhouse.

Less than two seasons into the five-year deal he signed upon controversially crossing from the Rays to usurp Rick Renteria, Maddon’s winning record speaks almost as highly of him as his players.

He’s the type of guy who makes the pressures of managing a success-starved franchise appear non-existent, while also getting his young playing group in the right frame of mind to embrace the hype but not become caught up in it.

In other words, he’s the perfect man for the job – and it shows.

Maddon and the young Cubbies (plus Grandpa Rossy, of course) have laid the groundwork for a monumental season. But considering the crapshoot nature of the modern playoff system, all the regular-season wins in the world won’t guarantee they finally manage to break the Curse of the Billy Goat.

Yet they’re as well-placed as they could possibly hope for and have all the pieces in place to overpower all challengers in October – this season, and for several years to come.

And if they eventually do clinch their first World Series in more than a century, the long-suffering Chicago faithful will simultaneously celebrate the Epstein regime and forgive the failures of managements past.

For just as Adidas once advertised on Addison St, it will have been worth the wait.


Chicago's five-year facelift

Comparing the stats and salaries of the key contributors in 2011 and 2015
*2011 stats are for the full season; 2016 stats as of June 30 (78 games)

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