On an 87-degree evening in St. Louis, just before game time on July 20, 2012, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer stood near the left-field line at Busch Stadium and completed the new regime’s first big trading deadline deal.
They got the guy they wanted from the Braves, right-hander Randall Delgado, for pending free agent Ryan Dempster. But it was too late to pull Dempster from his start that night, so the teams sat on the deal until the next morning.
Almost as soon as Dempster awoke to text messages and sourced reports of the trade, the deal fell apart.
Dempster was upset. He invoked his no-trade rights. The front office was upset because execs believed Dempster had given them the green light in earlier conversations. The Braves were chapped because they thought they had a deal.
More than a week of awkward byplay between the Cubs and Dempster – and between other teams and the leverage-dry Cubs – took them to the final minutes before the July 31 deadline, when team president Theo Epstein had Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels on the phone.
“At that point one deal had been blown up, and we had to make a deal,” Hoyer said. “There were like two minutes left.
“Given how much time we had left,” Hoyer said, “it was, like, just grab the guy that came well recommended from a [colleague] who used to be there.”
That guy was a Class A pitcher without much of a fastball but with promising intangibles.
And that’s how the Cubs shrewdly landed Kyle Hendricks.
“So dumb luck almost,” said Hendricks, who leads the majors in ERA and might be this year’s National League Cy Young winner. “What if that wouldn’t have happened? Who knows what the path would have been?”
For Hendricks. For the Cubs.
Delgado? He’s now a reliever with a 4.26 ERA for the also-ran Diamondbacks.
“Absolutely, we’ve had some luck involved,” Epstein said of the five-year process of assembling what today is the best team in the majors, with a chance at the franchise’s best record in more than 80 years.
Never mind its designs on solving their whole 108-year problem.
Epstein and Hoyer have said repeatedly since starting an organizational overhaul in the fall of 2011 that the process – and the progress – would not be linear.
However, the progress has been remarkably linear. The process of putting this team together has been anything but.
The national perspective often is that this has been a team built around a homegrown core that Epstein’s regime drafted and developed. And Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber would certainly qualify.
But Schwarber has been out for the season since Game 3. Not one pitcher expected to make the playoff roster has been drafted or signed as an amateur by this front office. And key contributors Javy Baez, Willson Contreras and Matt Szczur were inherited prospects from the previous regime.
But Epstein and Hoyer installed and upgraded processes and systems for evaluating players, and hired dozens of scouts and analysts to help execute them. They squirreled away part of their 2014 budget to have enough in 2015 to successfully target their first big free agent in Jon Lester. They accelerated their spending to capitalize on a sudden early window after their surprising 2015 success boosted this year’s budget with windfall revenues (and increased revenue projections).
And they made lots and lots of trades over five years that account for more than half the roster.
Certainly, they wouldn’t be here this quickly without nailing acquisitions such as Lester, a Cy Young candidate, and Bryant, an MVP candidate in his second season.
But it’s hard to imagine a timeline to 100-win potential coming this fast without “dumb luck” (or even smart luck).
“We’ve benefitted from a number of significant breaks along the way,” Epstein said. “That helps.”
Hendricks might be at the top of that list. But the sudden availability of Joe Maddon – one of the best managers in the game – at a critical transition point before last season might be just as big. And the Cubs wasted no time kicking Rick Renteria to the curb with two years left on his contract to snap up Maddon.
The 2013 trade for Jake Arrieta was a dice roll on a controllable pitcher with great stuff – with nobody expecting last year’s Cy Young season for the ages.
And Hector Rondon, the closer who might have been the best in the league before moving to a setup role when the Cubs traded for 105-mph closer Aroldis Chapman?
Rule 5 pick in 2012.
“As a baseball operation, you work really, really hard to bring in great people and build proven systems that can hopefully tilt the odds in your favor from 50-50 in a given transaction to in a best-case scenario, 55-45,” Epstein said. “But if you want to go off on a series of hitting at a much higher clip than that, and on a bunch of big moves, then you better have some luck involved as well.”
Just ask Hendricks, who considers himself the lucky one in that deal.
“I’m fine with it,” he said. “Just keep on going with the dumb luck. You’ve got to have it in this game.”