Nobody, including Cubs players, saw it coming – especially after news reports 3,000 miles away said it wasn’t.
But then Dexter Fowler showed up with team president Theo Epstein in the middle of morning workouts a week into spring training, shocking teammates with the sudden reunion.
And just like that these 2016 Cubs that produced 103 wins, seven All-Stars and untold levels of expectations were in business.
“That was a big part of our season,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said as the Cubs head to the playoffs with Fowler taking their first postseason hacks for the second straight year. “Had we not done that we would have been in a lurch, no question.”
Re-signing the center fielder on a one-year contract – the day after the Orioles thought they had a three-year deal in place – meant the Cubs could put Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward back in his natural position, and it made losing outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler to the DL for lengthy stretches more manageable.
Not to mention this: The switch-hitting leadoff man played at a level this season that produced his career-high on-base percentage (.393) and his first All-Star selection. And when he went on the DL with a hamstring injury in June, the Cubs – two days later – began their worst 20-game stretch of the season (5-15).
Upon his return July 22, they went 46-21 (.687) the rest of the way.
In all, the Cubs were 85-40 (.680) when he played — 18-18 when he didn’t.
“Overall, when I say, `You go, we go,’ it’s true,” said Maddon of his pet phrase to Fowler when the veteran heads to the plate. “And I say that to him sometimes: I’ll point at him and say, `It’s true.’ And he knows what I’m talking about.”
Despite disappointing final starts for frontline playoff starters Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ starting rotation finished the season with the third-best rotation ERA (2.96) since 1990 – one of only four under 3.00.
This Cubs’ rotation finished behind only the rotations of the 2011 Roy Halladay-Cole Hamels-Cliff Lee Phillies (2.86) and the 1992 John Smoltz-Tom Glavine-Charlie Liebrandt Braves (2.95).
Those rotations represented three career Cy Youngs each (but none in those seasons).
The other sub-3.00 rotation since 1990 was last year’s Cardinals, with John Lackey emerging as its Game 1 playoff starter.
“[Winning] starts with pitching, and one through five, all our pitchers have done an outstanding job,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo. “Come playoff time, pitching and defense wins championships, and we’ll see how it plays out.”
Along the way this year, three Cubs pitchers have won four of the six NL Pitcher of the Month Awards (Jake Arrieta in April, Kyle Hendricks in August and Jon Lester in June and September).
START OF SOMETHING?
The Cub rotation’s MLB-leading 2.96 ERA ranked 10th in Cubs history for a full season and fourth since the dead-ball era. The best (since 1913, as far back as breakdowns are available):
- 1918 2.16
- 1919 2.31
- 1917 2.60
- 1914 2.70
- 1916 2.73
- 1933 2.81
- 1945 2.90
- 1963 2.90
- 1920 2.92
- 2016 2.96