MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Cubs' 2017 success has been total team effort

Epstein and Co.'s shrewdness after amassing depth paying off

Cubs' 2017 success has been total team effort

CHICAGO -- Justin Verlander helped his team clinch a division title on Sunday, celebrating about 1,100 miles away from Wrigley Field.

He was pitching for the Astros, not the Cubs, of course. One of the reasons why he's pitching for Houston: Theo Epstein wouldn't send any members of his core group of young Major Leaguers to the Tigers as part of a package to get Verlander.

Hanging on to those guys has served the North Siders well this season.

After winning 4-3 on Sunday to sweep a three-game series vs. the Cardinals, they appear on their way to becoming only the second World Series champion in the past 15 years to win its division a year after holding a parade.

There has been nothing easy about this, however. The Cubs have a four-game lead over the Brewers with an all-hands-on-deck approach, needing every member of the deep roster accumulated and hoarded by Epstein's front office.

"The depth to us this year has been so invaluable,'' Joe Maddon said. "At everything: pitching, bullpen and the team on the field.''

Especially the team on the field.

The Cubs had a glut of All-Stars last season, including five position players who were worth at least 3.9 wins above replacement last season, according to FanGraphs. They rolled to 103 victories with that talent, playing at an elite level.

But it's likely that only Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and catcher Willson Contreras will finish with even 3-plus WAR this season, and the big boys have dropped off from the level they set a year ago.

Rizzo's huge offensive night

Maddon and the Cubs' front office have been even more creative with lineups than they were in 2016, in part because they now have two super-utility guys in Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ.

Jon Jay (1.4 WAR), Kyle Schwarber (1.2) and Albert Almora Jr. (1.1) have joined Happ (1.6) in making contributions that have offset the departure of Dexter Fowler and downturns in production elsewhere.

Schwarber's solo homer

The load behind Rizzo and Bryant has been shared, seemingly passed around on a daily basis.

Consider this: Javier Baez is third on the Cubs in plate appearances and ranks 60th in the National League. The Rockies and Reds both have six players with more plate appearances than Baez, and seven other teams have at least four who have gone to the plate more often.

Looking at the collective effort it has taken to get to 83-66, it's a good thing the Cubs don't have someone more impulsive -- someone like me or you -- as their president of baseball operations.

It would have been so easy to trade from the team's strength -- the wealth of position players 25 and under -- for pitching at any point in the past three seasons. Epstein has been open to that idea only on select occasions, like when he traded Jorge Soler to the Royals for closer Wade Davis.

Throughout this season, Epstein was dubious about his chance to acquire Jose Quintana from the White Sox because he thought he'd have to deal at least one of his big leaguers -- like Happ, Almora or Schwarber -- to land the lefty and his team-friendly contract, which runs through 2020.

Quintana's strong start vs. Mets

He eventually gave up at least one great prospect in power-hitting right fielder Eloy Jimenez in the Quintana package, but that sacrifice will be felt in 2019 and beyond, not in the more immediate window.

The Rays have long sought Baez when the teams discussed pitching trades. He seemed expendable at times because Addison Russell had settled in as the Cubs' shortstop and Epstein committed to using Zobrist as his primary second baseman after signing him as a free agent.

Maddon can't imagine where the Cubs would be if they didn't have both Baez and Russell this season, as Baez has gotten 66 starts at shortstop while Russell recovered from plantar fasciitis, a sore shoulder and other issues.

"Without Javy being here when Addison got hurt, it would not look the same right now,'' Maddon said. "I promise you, it would not look the same. The ability to plug up the middle of the field the way Javy has done in the absence of Addison, we would not be in this position right now. That's it. Very simple.''

Nine of 10 teams currently positioned for the postseason have shortstops who are 24 or younger. The Cubs are blessed to have two of them in the flashy Baez and the reliable Russell.

"It's so important to have a legitimate shortstop,'' Maddon said. "We have two legitimate shortstops, and they're both [about the same age]. It's very unusual to have that.''

You won't catch Maddon and Epstein looking ahead to the postseason. They're not going to assume anything. But it will be fascinating to see how they use their assets in October.

The Cubs had six names in stone on their lineup cards last October, and Maddon rotated eight guys into the other three spots (including Schwarber at DH in the World Series). Fourteen position players got a start.

With two weeks left in the season, it's unclear what Maddon would do in the outfield. He figures to stick with Jason Heyward in right, but he'll have to make tough choices in center and left, picking among Zobrist, Schwarber, Happ, Almora and Jay.

Heyward's RBI single

Maddon could even decide to start Contreras in left, getting Alex Avila's bat into the lineup against a tough right-hander like Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg. Those are thoughts for another day, of course, but it's a relevant topic because Epstein never took any of his options for granted.

Barring heroics from the Brew Crew in next weekend's four-game series at Miller Park, it looks like the Cubs are going back to the postseason. They'll face great competition as long as they last, but don't overlook Maddon's ability to put his options in the right spots.

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