MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

10 moves that got the Cubs back to October

10 moves that got the Cubs back to October

The Red Sox entered September 2011 on pace for 100 wins. They quickly lost hold of their lead in the Americal League East, and down the stretch saw Joe Maddon's Rays blow their doors off in the AL Wild Card race.

Some say then-Boston general manager Theo Epstein wouldn't have left Boston if not for that ugly 7-20 month, which included only three wins in the last 12 games. But who knows, really?

Had the Red Sox reached the playoffs for the seventh time in nine years, you wouldn't think Terry Francona would have been forced out as manager. Epstein might have gotten a contract extension, raise and title of president of baseball operations to continue the remarkable success he'd had in Boston. But, of course, he didn't.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts was bold enough to pursue him.

And smart enough to give Epstein carte blanche to hire whoever he wanted as he assembled one of the biggest and brightest front offices and scouting operations in the Major Leagues. Allowing Epstein to hire Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and Shiraz Rehman, among others, while retaining Tim Wilkin, Randy Bush and many top scouts has been essential to the regime's success.

This was the commitment the Cubs had always lacked, when they wasted the visibility and panache that Harry Caray and nationally televised games on WGN gave them. No decision made since then has been as important as the one Ricketts made when he brought Epstein aboard.

But there are plenty of other decisions that have led the Cubs back into the Postseason and across the threshold for what could be a run like the one Epstein oversaw in Boston. In order, here are the rest of the 10 key moves that led to the clinching of a spot in the October tournament:

2. Rizzo redux -- Only 73 days after joining the Cubs, Epstein traded prized pitching prospect Andrew Cashner to the Padres for 21-year-old Anthony Rizzo, whom Epstein had dealt to San Diego when he acquired Adrian Gonzalez for the Red Sox. McLeod labelled Rizzo as having the "best makeup'' of any prospect he's ever seen, and Rizzo has shown that with breakout performances in 2014 and '15. He's a cornerstone of the strong foundation.

3. Hitting the jackpot with Arrieta -- McLeod and Epstein had followed Jake Arrieta closely since the summer of 2006, when the righty served as No. 2 starter behind David Price on Team USA, and they still saw him mostly as a lottery ticket when they traded Scott Feldman to the Orioles to get him. The Cubs made an organizational decision to let Arrieta be Arrieta after seeing him flounder in Baltimore, and now they can ride the arm of one of baseball's toughest starters. As a bonus, they also landed setup man Pedro Strop in that deal in July 2013.

4. Falling for Bryant -- Some still say that the Cubs would have drafted Stanford ace Mark Appel if he'd been available at their No. 2 slot in the 2013 Draft. The Astros made that a moot point by taking Appel with the first-overall pick, and the Cubs immediately pounced on University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant. His overall athleticism and mind sold Epstein and Hoyer, and Bryant has quickly joined Rizzo to give the Cubs the best young left-right middle-of-the-order combination in baseball.

5. Hiring Maddon to conduct the orchestra -- In Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria, Epstein had hired placeholders to run things until his dream manager became available. He swooped in and landed Maddon quickly after Andrew Friedman's move from the Rays to the Dodgers triggered an early out clause in Maddon's contract. You can argue Maddon deserves to be higher on this list, as he's been perfect for this job. According to the Pythagorean standings, he's been good for six wins this year. But Maddon is correct in saying the "heavy lifting'' had been done before he took on the job. It's always about the talent.

6. Lester's vote of confidence -- When free agent Jon Lester followed Maddon to Chicago last winter, it spoke volumes about how Epstein had changed the perception of the franchise inside baseball. Lester hasn't been as effective as anyone hoped in the first year of a $155-million contract, but he has had a lot to do with the Cubs raising the bar of their expectations. If the Cubs can win the National League Wild Card Game behind Arrieta, Lester's biggest starts will be in the NL Division Series.

7. The Samardzija trade -- While Epstein's front office was cautiously optimistic after acquiring Arrieta, it was giddy after trading Samardzija to the A's for Addison Russell and outfield prospect Billy McKinney, the club's No. 2 prospect, last July. Few executives are ever willing to deal their top prospect, but Billy Beane did, handing the Cubs an elite talent as the most important position on the field. The Cubs have won two-thirds of their games since installing Russell as the primary shortstop on Aug. 5. He's going to win a lot of Gold Glove Awards, and there's nothing pitchers love more than double plays.

8. Saying bye-bye to Hoho -- While Epstein overhauled the roster and farm system, Ricketts and the team's business staff upgraded the Cubs' facilities. Improvements in the Dominican Republic and Wrigley Field will pay longterm benefits, but the move from outdated Hohokam Stadium to spacious, well-planned Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz., has already paid for itself. While living in his "Cousin Eddie's'' RV, Maddon worked wonders preparing and evaluating his players. It wouldn't have had such a fresh feel at the old place.

9. Bringing in the backstops -- The Cubs have cut their staff ERA from 3.91 last year to 3.51, partly because of Miguel Montero and David Ross. Both catchers rank near the top of pitch-framing stats, while predecessor Welington Castillo is always near the bottom. Montero, added in a trade with the D-backs, is a dangerous hitter, to boot. Ross, who has been Lester's personal catcher, is tough to run on (except when Lester is on the mound), and he quickly became an important voice in the clubhouse.

10. Never saying no to a hitter -- Lots of analysts felt Indiana University's Kyle Schwarber was a reach when the Cubs took him fourth overall in the 2014 Draft. However, he's lengthened the lineup, combining power with Bryant's willingness to take walks. With Schwarber, Jorge Soler, Starlin Castro and Chris Coghlan in the mix, the Cubs won't have any trouble finding a DH if they make it to the World Series.

Honorable mentions -- Trading for center fielder and leadoff man Dexter Fowler; signing Coghlan to a Minor League contract before 2014; selecting Hector Rondon from Cleveland in the Rule 5 draft after the '12 season; signing Jason Motte to a one-year, $4.5 million contract last winter; acquiring pitchers Kyle Hendricks, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards Jr., in trades that sent Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza to the Rangers; signing Soler to a nine-year, $30-million contract as a Cuban free agent, and signing Feldman to a one-year, $6-million contract for '13 (they don't get Arrieta without him).

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.