After winning 97 games, a 24-victory improvement from 2014 that was the best in baseball, Chicago will try to end its infamous World Series drought. Though the team entered the year with streaks of five consecutive losing seasons and six without making the playoffs, general manager Jed Hoyer said the Cubs were optimistic about 2015.
Chicago went 28-27 in the final two months of last season to generate some positive momentum. It also made a number of offseason moves with the idea of competing this year, starting with hiring manager Joe Maddon last October.
"We thought we could compete and contend, but we were committed to playing our young kids this year," Hoyer said. "We knew we'd go as far as those kids could take us. Probably the biggest surprise is they all played pretty well. They've had slumps, but they've been able to come through them and help the team win."
Player, how acquired, year
Starlin Castro, Int'l sign, 2006
Javier Baez, Draft, 2011 (1st round)
Jorge Soler, Int'l sign, 2012
Kris Bryant, Draft, 2013 (1st round)
Kyle Schwarber, Draft, 2014 (1st round)
The Cubs had MLBPipeline.com's top-rated farm system at the outset of the season, and they graduated three middle-of-the-order hitters to the big leagues this year in leading National League Rookie of the Year candidate Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler.
Yet among postseason clubs, Chicago has drafted and developed the fewest players: three. Javier Baez (No. 9 overall, 2011), Bryant (No. 2, 2013) and Schwarber (No. 4, 2014) were all top-10 selections and signed for a combined $12.5 million.
Since president of baseball operations Theo Espstein, Hoyer and vice president for scouting and playing development Jason McLeod arrived after the 2011 season, the Cubs have spent each of their first-round choices on position players: high schooler Albert Almora (No. 6 overall, 2012) and collegians Bryant, Schwarber and Ian Happ (No. 9, 2015). Hoyer said the team has taken hitters early by design.
"While we were picking at the top of the Draft and were given the opportunity to rebuild in a major market, we felt that was the way to go," Hoyer said. "The least risk in any demographic is with college hitters. College bats can pay dividends quick. We weren't going to get a payoff that quick from other demographics."
Including international signees Starlin Castro ($50,000 in 2006 out of the Dominican Republic) and Soler ($30 million contract in 2012 after defecting from Cuba), Chicago has a total of five homegrown players, again the lowest among playoff teams. That should change in future years, as the farm system still ranks among baseball's best and should keep delivering players to Wrigley Field.
"What the best organizations can do, and we've seen it with the Pirates and Cardinals, is establish winning big league teams and continue to integrate young players on their roster," Hoyer said. "That creates depth and trade currency. That's what we're hoping to emulate."
Player, year, acquired from
Travis Wood, 2011, Reds
Anthony Rizzo, 2012, Padres
Kyle Hendricks, 2012, Rangers
Hector Rondon, 2012, Indians*
Jake Arrieta, 2013, Orioles
Pedro Strop, 2013, Orioles
Justin Grimm, 2013, Rangers
Addison Russell, 2014, Athletics
Tommy La Stella, 2014, Braves
Miguel Montero, 2014, Diamondbacks
Dexter Fowler, 2015, Astros
Clayton Richard, 2015, Pirates
Fernando Rodney, 2015, Mariners
Austin Jackson, 2015, Mariners
*Acquired via Rule 5 Draft
While the Cubs sit at one extreme in terms of homegrown players, they're at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to trade/waiver/Rule 5 Draft acquisitions. They top all playoff clubs with 15, including their two best players: NL MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo and Cy Young Award candidate Jake Arrieta, neither of whom experienced much big league success before arriving in Chicago.
Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod all were with the Red Sox when they drafted Rizzo in the sixth round in 2007 and signed him for an above-slot $325,000. When Hoyer and McLeod moved on to the Padres, they acquired Rizzo as part of a blockbuster Adrian Gonzalez trade in December 2010. After the three executives were reunited with the Cubs, one of their first significant moves was getting Rizzo in a four-player deal that cost them Andrew Cashner.
Chicago's front-office leaders always have believed in Rizzo's talent, but Hoyer said Rizzo has exceeded expectations with his willingness and ability to make adjustments.
"He struggled with elevated fastballs in San Diego, and his swing would get long, so he changed his hand position," Hoyer said. "With the Cubs, he really struggled against left-handers in 2012 and 2013, so he worked on hitting left-handers. That's what's really impressive. He hasn't allowed any weaknesses to linger."
In their first three years in Chicago, Epstein and Co. consistently dealt the team's best starting pitchers for future help. They added Addison Russell in a 2014 trade for Jeff Samardzija, and Kyle Hendricks in a 2012 swap for Ryan Dempster, and their best move came when they sent Scott Feldman to the Orioles in 2013. The Cubs not only landed Arrieta, who had a 5.46 ERA in four years in the Majors, but also key reliever Pedro Strop.
"With Jake, everyone saw the arm strength and ability to spin the ball," Hoyer said. "The real pleasant surprise for us was his makeup. That's why he became so good. He's confident, he's diligent with his work and he really wants to be a great pitcher. That's the part you can't know when you make the deal. You can scout the talent, but that's where we got lucky."
Chicago shifted gears last offseason, looking to acquire veterans rather than turn them into prospects. They bolstered their lineup with Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler, then added depth during the season with pickups such as Dan Haren and Fernando Rodney.
Chris Coghlan, 2014
Jason Hammel, 2014
Jon Lester, 2014
David Ross, 2014
Trevor Cahill, 2015
Chris Denorfia, 2015
Though the Cubs are a large-revenue club, they didn't flex their financial muscles much while they were trying to rebuild. In the first three years under their current front-office regime, their biggest free-agent addition was a $52 million contract for Edwin Jackson, who got released this July.
With Chicago looking to contend, it opened its wallet last December to give Jon Lester a six-year, $155 million contract. That deal reunited Epstein and Co. with another player from their Boston days, and represented roughly 40 percent of the club's payroll obligations for 2015 and beyond on Opening Day.
While the money had to be attractive, Hoyer said cash alone wouldn't have drawn Lester.
"The combination of playing well at the end of the year, and our young guys made it clear 2015 could be a better year," Hoyer said. "I think that thought began in 2014 when we got Joe, and players said, 'They're going for it.' I don't think we would really appeal to Jon Lester if we didn't have Joe and we weren't playing better."
Given the way the Cubs have played better in 2015, they should be an attractive free-agent destination in the future. And they may not have to wait much longer for that elusive World Series title.