MLB.com Columnist

Jim Callis

How they were built: Cubs

World Series champs return to postseason, thanks to homegrown core, big trades

How they were built: Cubs

MLBPipeline.com is breaking down how each of the postseason teams was built, looking at the composition of their projected Division Series rosters.

Just when you thought you wouldn't have to hear "1908" and "Cubs" in the same sentence after Chicago won its first World Series in more than a century last year, we'll note that the Lovable no-longer Losers haven't captured consecutive championships since, well, 1908.

That's what the Cubs will shoot for as they make their third straight postseason appearance, something they've done only once before in the 141-year history of the franchise. Their previous three-year streak came in 1906-08.

Chicago cruised to the playoffs in 2016, spending just one day out of first place in the National League Central and building a double-digit lead by mid-June. This season was more turbulent, with the Cubs not crossing .500 for good until mid-July and not clinching the division until the final week. Yet GM Jed Hoyer says 2017 has felt more satisfying in some ways.

"Last year when we won the division, we were up by 15 games by September and there was no drama to it," Hoyer said. "We won the division in April really, and it never got that close. This year was much more difficult. We were two games under .500 at the All-Star break and it was a lot harder this year."

HOMEGROWN

Player, how acquired, year, 2017 Baseball-Reference WAR (15.8):

Willson Contreras, Int'l sign, 2009, 3.9
Javier Baez, Draft, 2011 (1st round), 2.9
Albert Almora Jr., Draft, 2012 (1st), 1.1
Kris Bryant, Draft, 2013 (1st), 6.1
Kyle Schwarber, Draft, 2014 (1st), 0
Ian Happ, Draft, 2015 (1st), 1.8

When president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, Hoyer and vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod arrived in the fall of 2011, they decided to assemble a nucleus of position players. They spent their first three first-round selections on: Almora (2012), who scored the game-winning run in the 10th inning of Game 7 of the World Series; Bryant (2013), the 2016 National League MVP who's making a strong case for the award again this year; and Schwarber (2014), whose 1.178 postseason OPS trails only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in baseball history.

Almora, Bryant and Schwarber will continue to play leading roles as the Cubs try to defend their title. So will 2011 first-rounder Baez, who combines power and defensive wizardry like few infielders can, and 2015 first-rounder Happ, who has hit 24 homers as a rookie. Add Contreras, who signed for $850,000 as a third baseman out of Venezuela in 2009 and since has blossomed into one of the game's top young catchers, and the Cubs have six homegrown everyday players.

Interestingly, those are the only homegrown players on Chicago's projected October roster, tying them with the D-backs for the fewest among playoff clubs. The Cubs haven't signed and developed any of their postseason pitchers, a void they hope to fill in the future. They spent 13 of their first 14 Draft picks in 2016 and seven of their top eight in 2017 on arms.

"One of our goals all along was that if we could build a really good group of young homegrown hitters, they would provide roster stability for a long time," Hoyer said. "Then we could draft and develop and also sign free-agent pitchers. We've known for a while that the challenge was going to be to put a good enough rotation and bullpen around the young hitters. That's been a strategic goal of ours."

TRADES/WAIVERS

Player, year, acquired from, bWAR (21.5):

Anthony Rizzo, 2012, Padres, 4.4
Kyle Hendricks, 2012, Rangers, 3.5
Jake Arrieta, 2013, Orioles, 1.9
Pedro Strop, 2013, Orioles, 1.1
Carl Edwards Jr., 2013, Rangers, 1.6
Addison Russell, 2014, Athletics, 2.4
Tommy La Stella, 2014, Braves, 0.3
Mike Montgomery, 2016, Mariners, 2.2
Wade Davis, 2016, Royals, 1.9
Jose Quintana, 2017, White Sox, 1.3
Alex Avila, 2017, Tigers, 0.7
Justin Wilson, 2017, Tigers, -0.1
Leonys Martin, 2017, Mariners, 0.3

The new regime's first impact transaction was sending Andrew Cashner to the Padres for Rizzo in January 2012. Epstein, Hoyer and McLeod were all with the Red Sox when they signed Rizzo for an above-slot $325,000 as a sixth-rounder in 2007, and Hoyer and McLeod had moved on to San Diego when they acquired Rizzo in the Adrian Gonzalez blockbuster three years later.

In the early stages of the rebuilding process, the Cubs continued to deal prospects for veterans. They'll readily admit that they didn't see Hendricks (part of a package from the Rangers for Ryan Dempster in 2012) leading the big leagues in ERA in 2016 or Arrieta (who came from the Orioles with Strop in exchange for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger in 2013) developing into a Cy Young Award winner. They did know they were getting one of baseball's best prospects when they pried Russell from the Athletics in the Jeff Samardzija deal in 2014.

Cubs see success in trades

Once Chicago started winning, it reversed course. It sacrificed Gleyber Torres as the headline prospect in a trade last summer for Aroldis Chapman, who saved four games and won two (including Game 7 of the World Series) last October. It dealt for another closer last December, using surplus outfielder Jorge Soler to obtain Davis from the Royals.

The Cubs tapped into their prospect depth again this July to bolster their rotation with Quintana, who comes with the added bonus of a team-friendly contract that runs through 2020. He didn't come cheaply, as Chicago surrendered two Top 100 Prospects in Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease and two other Minor Leaguers.

"We obviously had to give up a lot of young talent to get Quintana, but it made a lot of sense for us," Hoyer said. "You don't want to trade your homegrown guys. That's never easy. At the same time, we needed to make that trade. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions."

FREE AGENTS

Player, year, bWAR (7.3):

Jon Lester, 2014, 0.8
John Lackey, 2015, 1.2
Ben Zobrist, 2015, 0.5
Jason Heyward, 2015, 2.3
Jon Jay, 2016, 1.1
Brian Duensing, 2016, 1.4

After going 28-27 in the final two months of the 2014 season, the Cubs felt they were ready to compete. To enhance their chances, they made the first blockbuster free-agent signing of Epstein's tenure by landing Lester with a six-year deal worth $155 million. After earning two World Series rings in Boston, Lester grabbed a third last year when he won Game 5 of the Fall Classic and would have won Game 7 had Chapman not blown the save.

Cubs' free agents contributing

"We felt Jon Lester sent the right message that we were serious about winning," Hoyer said. "Jon Lester was the right person for us. And we always have given him credit for believing in us too. He had the opportunity to go to other teams that were more established."

Chicago invested heavily in free agents again after losing in the 2015 NL Championship Series, signing Heyward (eight years, $184 million), 2016 World Series MVP Zobrist (four years, $56 million) and Lackey (two years, $32 million). It was more conservative last offseason, handing out one-year deals to Jay ($8 million), Koji Uehara ($6 million) and Duensing ($2 million).

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.