As the Cubs roll toward clinching their first playoff berth in seven seasons, a look back at how they got here — at least a year earlier than internal expectations and with the best record in baseball since the end of June — reveals more than the fortunate health, rookie development and new on-field management that has gone into this season.
At least 10 significant moves made by the front office since Theo Epstein took over baseball operations 47 months ago have led to this moment. In order of significance:
1. Hiring Joe Maddon
The Plan was humming along, with the Cubs churning the big-league roster to stock the farm system, graduating a few players to the majors and reaching the point of refocusing on the big-league team. Then, one of the top two managers in the game (the other: Bruce Bochy) suddenly became available. The Cubs pounced so aggressively on Maddon they were accused of tampering before hiring the ideal manager for the ideal moment in the transition, signing him for $25 million over five years (while enduring some ill will within the industry for kicking sitting manager Rick Renteria to the curb with two years left on his contract).
2. Trading Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo
Barely two months into the job, the Boston/San Diego-centric brass acquired Rizzo, bringing him into his third organization since the Epstein-Jed Hoyer-Jason McLeod trinity drafted him with the Red Sox. Cashner is a frontline starter when healthy, but Rizzo has been at least equally valuable — and consistently healthier — as an elite left-handed power/on-base bat and the key building block for a playoff lineup. Less than 16 months later, the Cubs signed him to a seven-year, $41 million deal that is looking like one of the most club-friendly deals in baseball.
3. Trading pitcher Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop
Arrieta was a high-upside underperformer who clashed in a one-size-fits-all pitching culture in Baltimore. Just about the time his agent encouraged the Orioles to consider a trade, the Cubs were looking to jump the 2013 trade market in early July, resulting in a perfect storm in their rebuilding process. On Tuesday night against the Brewers, Arrieta became the first Cub in 14 years to win 20 games, strengthening his Cy Young case with a three-hit shutout of the Brewers — two weeks ahead of a likely playoff-opening assignment.
4. Opening a savings account
In the best-conceived, outcome-assured move to date, Epstein’s front office engineered short-term payroll flexibility ahead of promised future revenue increases by striking an agreement with ownership to create a firewalled baseball-operations account that allows Epstein to protect unused budget for future use and against year-end redistribution, contrary to industry norms and previous team practices. The result: When the 2014 money earmarked for a failed run at free agent Masahiro Tanaka went unused, the Cubs carried it over, ultimately using it to pay the front end of Jon Lester’s $155 million deal this year (offsetting his $15 million salary and the front half of his $30 million bonus). Short-term spending restrictions arising from the decadelong debt arrangement from the 2009 purchase of the team has led to big-league payroll budgets of roughly $100 million for 2014 and ’15, with the new account allowing Epstein to give himself a 20 percent boost this year.
5. Making Kris Bryant (No. 2 draft pick in 2013) and Kyle Schwarber (No. 4 in 2014) the top hitters selected in back-to-back seasons
Of course, it took an average of 98½ losses during the first two seasons of a three-year tanking process to secure the lofty picks. And it took passing on much-needed pitching. But the organizational philosophy of drafting the safer-bet college hitter has given the Cubs a right-left slugging combo under club control for at least six more years. Bryant the likely Rookie of the Year in 2015, Schwarber the second-half charge that has helped result in a run more per game since his call-up during the All-Star break.
6. Hiring Dale Sveum as the -regime’s first manager for 2012
Why? Forget the fact he was fired after just two seasons (following pressure and promises from the business side that back-channel overtures were sure to land Yankees free-agent manager Joe Girardi). Sveum brought in former teammate and longtime friend Chris Bosio as his pitching coach. And keeping Bosio — whose post-playing experience spans two decades as a minor-league instructor, scout and major-league coach — has been perhaps the biggest key in keeping the Cubs’ flawed, revolving-door pitching staffs solvent and competitive for four seasons. “A force of nature,” Epstein says.
7. Trading for Addison Russell
The Cubs cast a wide net for pitching when they shopped starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel during the 2014 trading season, expecting to make separate trades with them. But then Billy Beane made his top prospect available. “There was no package of players available that made us think twice about passing on this opportunity,” Epstein said at the time. Thirteen months later, Russell forced three-time All-Star Starlin Castro off shortstop, and he has been one of the more productive hitters on the team in the second half.
8. Selecting Hector Rondon in the Rule 5 draft after the 2012 season
The one-time Indians prospect was damaged goods with a rebuilt elbow, and he had suffered a setback even before pitching for the Cubs. By the second half of last year, he had emerged as a dominant late-inning pitcher. And now he’s the guy the Cubs trust to be the last man standing on the mound in October.
9. Trading Matt Garza
The Cubs convinced the Rangers that Matt Garza was worth three players currently in the Cubs’ bullpen and a fourth who opened each of the last two seasons as their starting third baseman. One year after a Garza trade fell through because of an 11th-hour injury, the Cubs nurtured the mercurial right-hander through the elbow problem, meticulously arranged his pitching schedule to give him the best chance to drive up his value, then convinced the Rangers he was a hot commodity near the 2013 trade deadline. The Cubs got Mike Olt (now with the White Sox), Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm and their top pitching prospect this year, Carl Edwards Jr.
10. Signing Jorge Soler
The Cubs targeted the little-known Soler early in the courting process for a group of Cuban émigrés during the regime’s first offseason, and they eventually signed him to a nine-year, $30 million deal. The Cubs were aggressive enough with that international class that their other target, Yoenis Cespedes, said during his rookie season that he believed the Cubs would sign him. Financial restrictions allowed the Athletics to steal Cespedes, but Soler has been an imposing presence in the lineup as a rookie, albeit while trying to prove he can stay healthy.
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