World Series 2016: Here's how the NL champion Chicago Cubs were built
The Cubs drafted only four players on their postseason roster
The 2016 World Series matchup is set. The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, two teams with very long title droughts, will meet for the championship this year. The Cubbies haven't won a World Series since 1908. The Indians have been waiting since 1948. One of those droughts will soon come to an end.
Like every team, the Cubs were assembled through all sorts of different methods. No team is built exclusively through the draft, or trades, or free agency. It's not possible. Teams need to have success acquiring talent through every avenue available. The Cubbies have done exactly that. Let's look at how the 2016 Cubs were built.
It wasn't too long ago that the Cubs were one of the worst teams in baseball. Chicago held a top 10 pick every year from 2011-15, so they've been able to add some premium talent through the draft. Three of those top 10 picks were on the team's NLCS roster. Another would have been had he been healthy.
The second of those five straight top 10 picks from 2011-15 was outfielder Albert Almora, who made his MLB debut this season and is on the postseason roster as a reserve outfielder. It took some time for his bat to develop in the minors, but his glovework has always been excellent, and that's why he's on the roster. Almora was the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein regime.
Javier Baez, NLCS co-MVP and breakout star of the postseason, was taken one pick after the Indians selected Francisco Lindor in the 2011 draft. He had some monster seasons in the minors -- Baez hit .282/.341/.578 with 37 home runs between High-A and Double-A in 2013, for example -- and has started to overcome the extreme aggressiveness that had some worried about his ability to tap into his huge power at the MLB level. His defense, as we've seen in October, is all-world.
Boy, how different would the baseball landscape be right now if the Astros took Kris Bryant with the first overall pick in 2013 draft instead of Mark Appel? Appel wasn't a bad pick at the time -- he was rated as the top prospect in the draft class by several scouting publications, in fact -- but he hasn't developed as expected. Houston flipped him to the Phillies in the Ken Giles deal last offseason.
Bryant, meanwhile, was baseball's top prospect in 2014, the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015, and has a very good chance to be the NL MVP in 2016. I'd call him the favorite, but we'll see how the voting turns out. Building a team as dominant as these Cubs takes a good plan and also some plain ol' luck. The Astros taking Appel over Bryant is a good example of a break going Chicago's way.
Believe it or not, only one member of the NLCS pitching staff was originally drafted and developed by the Cubs. That's Rob Zastryzny, and he didn't make his MLB debut until mid August. He battled some injuries and mechanical issues in the minors before finding his way this year. Zastryzny is the first pitcher drafted by the Epstein regime to reach the show.
I knew the Cubs had a lot of trade acquisitions on their roster, but I didn't realize exactly how many. The team had 12 trade pickups on the NLCS roster. Chicago hit the jackpot with more than a few of these deals too. They've worked out extremely well. Best case scenario stuff.
Like I said, best case scenario. The Cubs acquired Jake Arrieta from the Orioles in a four-player trade a few weeks prior to the 2013 trade deadline, when he had basically zero MLB success to his credit. He was a reclamation project. Here's the swap:
Feldman was okay for the O's! He had a 4.27 ERA in 15 starts and 90 2/3 innings after the deal, which wasn't enough to get Baltimore to the postseason. Feldman then left as a free agent after the season. Clevenger was pretty inconsequential.
Arrieta, meanwhile, developed into a super-ace and the 2015 NL Cy Young award winner with the Cubs. Some mechanical tweaks and a little "let's just get out of his way" helped accomplish that. Give the Cubs a truth serum and I'm sure they'd tell you they never expected Arrieta to be this good.
It was clear early on the Cubs were the best team in baseball this season. Everyone knew they were going to the postseason by time the trade deadline rolled around, and truth be told, they looked like the World Series favorites for most of the year. They were already great with no obvious needs.
Epstein didn't see it that way. He went for the kill at the deadline and acquired Aroldis Chapman, arguably the greatest reliever in baseball, in a five-player trade with the Yankees. The Cubs received Chapman and the Yankees received reliever Adam Warren, top prospect Gleyber Torres, and minor leaguers Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford. Did the Cubs need Chapman? Maybe not. Are they a better team with him? Absolutely.
Giving up that package of players -- MLB.com ranks Torres as the 17th best prospect in baseball -- is not something you do when you're on the bubble and just trying to get into the postseason. That's a trade you make when you're ready to win the World Series.
Chris Coghlan was traded twice this year. The Cubs sent him to the Athletics for minor league righty Aaron Brooks early in spring training, then when things didn't work out in Oakland, the A's sent Coghlan back to the Cubs for utility man Arismendy Alcantara. Like he never left.
Few teams were as busy as the Cubs prior to the 2013 trade deadline. Not only did they make the Arrieta-Feldman trade, they also shipped veterans Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano out of town. Soriano went back to the Yankees. Garza went to the Rangers for a four-prospect package:
Olt was the big name in the trade. He was one of the top power hitting prospects in baseball at the time, but he never quite figured it out at the big league level. Edwards has turned into the real prize even though he's had to move from the rotation into the bullpen full-time. He's emerged as one of manager Joe Maddon's most trusted setup men.
Grimm came over from the Rangers with Edwards in the Garza trade. He's another guy who's carved out a niche in the bullpen after starting his career as a starter. Grimm has settled in as a reliable middle reliever the last year or two.
Kyle Hendricks, the hero in Game 6 of the NLCS, was also acquired from the Rangers, but not in the Garza trade. He came over in the Ryan Dempster trade at the 2012 trade deadline along with minor league infielder Carlos Villanueva. Texas selected Hendricks out of Dartmouth in the eighth round of the 2011 draft, and to his credit, he worked hard to develop the elite command that allows him to dominate with average-ish stuff. He's a great player development success story.
The Cubs were determined to add a veteran catcher during the 2014-15 offseason, so much so that they had contract talks with free agent Russell Martin. Once it became clear they wouldn't land Martin, they shifted gears and focused on Miguel Montero, who had fallen out of favor with the Diamondbacks and was starting to get expensive. They landed the lefty hitting pitch-framer extraordinaire for minor league pitchers Zack Godley and Jeferson Mejia. These days Montero is third on Chicago's catching depth chart, but he's still a very important part of the roster.
It was only a matter of time until the Cubs traded Dan Vogelbach. The kid can mash, but he's exclusively a first baseman and DH, and Chicago had zero room for him. The Cubbies pulled the trigger on the inevitable Vogelbach trade shortly before this year's trade deadline, sending him to the Mariners with minor leaguer Paul Blackburn for Mike Montgomery and minor leaguer Jordan Pries. Montgomery, who was also part of the James Shields-Wil Myers trade back in the day, has settled in as a reliable swingman in his short time on the north side.
Epstein has a long history with Anthony Rizzo. He originally drafted him with the Red Sox, then traded him to the Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal prior to the 2011 season. After joining the Cubs, Epstein brought Rizzo to Chicago in a four-player trade with San Diego. The full trade:
Now, it should be noted the Padres did not trade this Anthony Rizzo. He overhauled his mechanics back in 2013 to combat swing-and-miss and left-on-left issues, and it's turned him into one of the game's great hitters. The Cubs bought low on Rizzo and have been rewarded with an MVP caliber player.
Trading for Rizzo was one of the first major trades of Epstein's tenure with Chicago.
Two and a half years ago the Athletics did something you rarely see a small market team do: they went all-in at the trade deadline. The A's were leading the AL West but they desperately needed pitching help. The window to win was closing, so then-GM Billy Beane pushed all his chips into the middle of the table.
In the short-term, the trade worked for Oakland. Samardzija and Hammel combined for 179 1/3 innings of 3.56 ERA ball. They gave the A's the rotation lift they needed. Of course, the Athletics collapsed hard in the second half and only barely snuck into the postseason as the second wild-card team. They then lost the Wild Card Game in heartbreaking fashion to the Royals.
Russell, meanwhile, has taken over as Chicago's shortstop of the present and future. He was one of the game's best prospects at the time of the deal and has developed exactly as the Cubs hoped. I applaud the A's for being bold and going for it in 2014. This trade is one they'd like to have back though.
Strop came over from the Orioles in the Arrieta trade. I'm pretty sure that if the trade was Strop for Feldman and Clevenger, the Cubs would still be the big winners here. Strop has been a very effective setup man basically since the day the trade was made.
His second trade, made two weeks after the LeMahieu deal, was acquiring Travis Wood from the Reds for veteran southpaw Sean Marshall. Outfielder Dave Sappelt and infielder Ronald Torreyes went to Chicago in the trade too. Marshall had some nice years with Cincinnati before getting hurt. Wood has done pretty much everything for the Cubs since the trade. Start, relieve, whatever. He's currently a fixture in their bullpen.
Wood, by the way, is Chicago's longest-tenured player. He sat through all the lean years before enjoying the team's current success.
Free Agent Signings
The Cubs are a big-market team, no doubt about it, and they've taken advantage by throwing their money around the last few offseasons. That's exactly what a big-market team should do. You can't sit back and expect to build a contender solely through scouting and drafting. Spending money is a good way to get great players.
Remember when Dexter Fowler signed with the Orioles, then didn't sign with the Orioles? That was weird. He reportedly agreed to a three-year contract with Baltimore early in spring training before he showed up to Cubs camp one day with a new one-year contract. Fowler supposedly wanted an opt-out clause and backed out of the deal when the O's said no. He instead returned to the Cubbies and has been dynamic as their leadoff hitter.
It's pretty amazing the Cubs won 103 games and advanced to the World Series despite Jason Heyward having such a terrible year. Inexcusably terrible, really. That's a testament to their depth. Heyward signed his mammoth contract and hit .230/.306/.325 in 2016. Yikes. At least he plays great defense. All will be forgiven if the Cubbies win the World Series, of course.
John Lackey is one of several ex-Red Sox players Epstein has brought to Chicago. Lackey defected from the rival Cardinals last offseason to provide veteran depth to the Cubs' rotation. The Cubs did have to forfeit a draft pick to sign him, but that's a small price to pay for a piece of a potential championship rotation.
I still can't believe the Red Sox let Jon Lester get him away. They reportedly made him a low ball offer in the $70 million range early in 2014, and when he rejected that, Boston traded him (and Jonny Gomes) to the Athletics for Yoenis Cespedes. Lester helped the A's get to the postseason before hitting free agency.
Needless to say, plenty of teams were in on Lester as a free agent. The Giants were said to have made a strong push. The Red Sox too. Ultimately, having a chance to be part of the first World Series winning Cubs team in more than a century was too great to ignore. Lester landed his big contract and is at the front of the team's rotation this postseason.
The Cubs signed David Ross specifically to work with Lester. The two had a great rapport with the Red Sox and the Cubs wanted Lester, their new high-priced ace, to be as comfortable as possible, so they signed Ross to again serve as his personal catcher. He's been a quality backup for a long time, and now he's a fan favorite as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed the "Ben Zobrist is a good fit for this team" talk last offseason because Zobrist is a good fit for every team. He can play just about anywhere and he's a quality switch-hitter at that. The Cubs brought him in as an upgrade over Starlin Castro at second base, and, of course, he's done a lot of moving around this season as well. Even now that he's well into his 30s, Zobrist remains extremely productive and valuable. What an asset.
International Free Agency
Over the last few seasons the Cubs have been one of the biggest spenders in international free agency. Those efforts have yielded not only big league roster pieces, but also trade chips like Gleyber Torres, who was the headliner in the package for Chapman.
The Cubs originally signed Willson Contreras as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela back in 2009, when he was a third baseman. He didn't move behind the plate full-time until 2012, and all the work on the defensive side of the game slowed the development of his bat. Contreras broke out in a big way last season and is now clearly the team's catcher of the future.
A few years ago MLB and the MLBPA rewrote the international free agency rules partly due to Jorge Soler's contract. Soler, who defected from Cuba in 2011, signed an unprecedented nine-year contract a few months later. He was only 20 at the time, remember. The Cubs are still waiting for Soler's star caliber tools to translate into star caliber production, though he has a role on the roster as a lefty mashing outfielder.
Rule 5 Draft
It seems teams are getting better at finding hidden gems in the Rule 5 Draft. Once upon a time the Rule 5 Draft, which is designed to prevent clubs from burying players in the minors indefinitely, was a way to maybe add a depth reliever or 25th man type. Now teams are finding impact players.
There has been no better Rule 5 Draft pick the last few years than Hector Rondon. The Cubs selected him from, coincidentally enough, the Indians in December 2012, and he's been on their roster ever since. First as a middle reliever, then as a closer, and now as Chapman's setup man. Rondon has a 2.97 ERA and +4.0 WAR in 239 career big league innings, which is a phenomenal return on a Rule 5 Draft pick. That he was taken from Cleveland's system only makes this story a little juicier.
The 25 players above represent the 25-man roster the Cubs used in the NLCS. It remains to be seen whether they will make any roster changes prior to the World Series. These days it takes way more than 25 players to get to the season though. Here are a few others who are not on the postseason roster, but played roles in 2016.
Simply put, Trevor Cahill is not on the postseason roster due to the numbers crunch. The Cubs have more than enough quality arms and someone was going to get left out. That someone was Cahill. He's healthy and available should Chicago decide to add him to the roster at some point.
Cahill joined the Cubs as a free agent after being released by the Braves last year, and re-signed with Chicago over the winter. It's a one-year, $4.25 million contract.
In most cases the fifth starter makes the postseason roster as the long man, but the Cubs aren't most teams. Jason Hammel made 30 solid starts during the regular season is now just along for the ride. He could be activated if another pitcher goes down with injury.
Hammel re-signed with the Cubs as a free agent last offseason after spending a half-season with the A's following the Samardzija/Russell trade. He received a two-year pact worth $20 million.
Tommy La Stella was on Chicago's NLDS roster, but he was removed from the NLCS in favor of Zastryzny so Maddon would have another matchup lefty against the Dodgers' lefty heavy lineup. La Stella could find himself back on the World Series roster as an extra bench bat. He came over from the Braves in a one-for-one trade for Arodys Vizcaino.
This is the big loss. Kyle Schwarber went down with a torn ACL a week into the regular season, so the Cubs have been without one of their top power hitters all season. There's a chance he could return in the World Series, however. Schwarber played in the Arizona Fall League on Saturday night in hopes of serving as the club's DH during games in Cleveland. We'll see whether he gets added to the roster.
The Cubbies opted for Almora over Matt Szczur as their righty hitting reserve outfielder this postseason, though the former Villanova football star did spent the entire season on the big league team's bench. Given the Indians' right-handed heavy pitching staff, Szczur figures to be left off the World Series roster as well.
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