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The 2016 season had a different feel from Day 1, with expectations set much higher. An improvement on last year's regular-season finish -- a division title -- would suffice, and going further than the club did in October a year ago -- World Series or bust -- was demanded.
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The Cubs lived up to the hype during the regular season as the only team to win more than 100 games. And they stamped their status as the NL's top dogs by capturing their first pennant since 1945. Whether they can finish it off with the franchise's first World Series title since 1908 remains to be seen. But the braintrust knew it had a good thing going and needed to just make some key additions to a very strong nucleus to make it a possibility.
"We always circled 2016 as the year our guys would be in the big leagues and make contributions," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "We looked at 2015 if a lot of things went right, we could compete.
"This year, because of our experience last year, we knew there was a level of expectation. Joe [Maddon] did a great job of not running away from those expectations."
The winning percentage may not be all that different from last year to this one, but the Cubs established themselves as the class of the NL Central pretty early and never let go of that stranglehold.
"This season, our win total isn't going to be that far away from last year, but the way we got there was a lot different," Hoyer said. "This is a more complete team. We've been more consistent. I do think things like run differential make a big difference. We've been able to control games a lot better. We've proven to be very good marathoners, for sure. I'm excited to see what October brings."
Here's a look at how each player on the Cubs' projected World Series roster was initially acquired during his current stint with the club:
Player, how acquired, year
Willson Contreras, Int'l sign, 2009
Javier Baez, Draft, 2012 (1st round)
Albert Almora Jr., Draft, 2010 (1st round)
Jorge Soler, Int'l sign, 2012
Kris Bryant, Draft, 2013 (1st round)
In 2015, the arrival of Bryant received most headlines, and he went on to be a unanimous NL Rookie of the Year Award winner. He was joined by Baez and Soler as homegrown talent on last year's postseason roster.
• How they were built: Indians
This season's rookie boost came in the form of Contreras, the high-energy catcher who signed as an infielder back in the Jim Hendry era. He moved behind the plate in 2012 and broke out offensively in 2015, paving the way for his first callup this past June. Contreras has swung the bat well, with an .828 OPS, and he has thrown out 37 percent of would-be basestealers.
"He's been outstanding," Hoyer said. "We needed that kind of young spark this year. Last year, we brought up Kris, Addison [Russell] and Kyle [Schwarber]. They always provided a spark for us. Young energy can do that.
"Willson came up and provided the same thing. It was really needed for us. He plays with so much energy, so it was well-timed. He's turned himself into a really good catcher, but it didn't happen overnight and it wasn't linear. When it clicked, it really clicked."
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
Carl Edwards Jr., 2013, Rangers
Addison Russell, 2014, Athletics
Tommy La Stella, 2014, Braves
Miguel Montero, 2014, D-backs
Dexter Fowler, 2015, Astros
Chris Coghlan, 2016, A's
Mike Montgomery, 2016, Mariners
Aroldis Chapman, 2016, Yankees
* Acquired via Rule 5 Draft
As they did a year ago, the Cubs lead all postseason teams in this category, with 14 of the 25 on the playoff roster coming by way of trade (plus one via the Rule 5 Draft). The key deals continue to be the two that brought in the current top of their starting rotation, and in both cases, it was bringing in unfinished products and helping them reach their potential.
In 2015, Arrieta put it all together for a full season and won the NL Cy Young Award. While he certainly has been solid in 2016, it's been Hendricks, acquired at the Trade Deadline in 2012 for Ryan Dempster -- the Cubs had a run of dealing members of their big league rotation to bring in young and unproven arms -- who has taken the league by storm, leading the NL in ERA.
"A lot of things have gone better than expected," Hoyer said. "Kyle has turned into a No. 1-type starter this year. Jake has continued to be outstanding. They deserve credit for the putting in all the hard work. They make us look good for believing in them. It's been fun to see those guys prove people wrong."
Since coming to Chicago, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, Hoyer and company had focused their efforts on the trading market as sellers. They sold to get Hendricks and Arrieta. They sold to get an unproven Rizzo. They sold to get Russell when he was a top prospect.
This year was different. They saw an opportunity to play deep into October, so for the first time, they used the farm system they had worked so hard to build to bring in a top-end big league talent. Chapman did cost them top prospect Gleyber Torres, as well as Billy McKinney, but they felt it was the time to take that kind of risk.
"It speaks to the importance of always having a good pipeline," Hoyer said. "We had never made trades like that since we've been here. At some point, you have to focus on this year's team and what's happening right in front of you. We spent a lot of time building up and it was time to use some of those assets.
"It was time to flip the script a little bit. We're not always going to do that. We value young players. Given where we were, we felt it was the right thing to do."
Jon Lester, 2014
David Ross, 2014
Jason Heyward, 2015
John Lackey, 2015
Ben Zobrist, 2015
The Cubs looked at the nucleus of the team that got them to the NL Championship Series in 2015, and they realized that while their core was strong and largely intact, it needed some help before the season began. The three key free-agent acquisitions -- Heyward, Zobrist and Lackey -- addressed those needs with the hope that they, along with the progression of key young players, would get them exactly to where they are right now.
"A lot of our offseason was about balance," Hoyer said. "We knew guys like Kris, Javier and we had hoped Kyle, would continue to improve. But last year, we were a little too right-handed at times. We definitely struck out too much. Zobrist [a switch-hitter] and Heyward, they were about decreasing strikeouts and getting on base. Heyward was adding an impact defender.
"With Lackey, we wanted to bring in another playoff starter, someone who eats innings and has presence."
So far, so good, though all involved will be disappointed if the Cubs aren't the last team standing. Still, it's impossible to not see how vast the turnaround has been.