If there was any doubt about which team “won” the MLB offseason, the Chicago Cubs just put it to rest. After supposedly signing with the Baltimore Orioles the day before on a three-year, $35 million contract, free agent outfielder Dexter Fowler surprised everyone — including his teammates — by showing up to spring training at the Cubs facility alongside the team’s President Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer.
It was a major coup pulled off by the Cubs’ front office, bringing Fowler in on a one-year contract worth just $13 million, with a mutual option for a second year. But that alone isn’t why the Cubs were the biggest winners of the offseason. Here are the reasons why the Cubs get the honorary trophy of the offseason winner and why they have such a good chance of holding real trophies later this year.
They addressed their needs
Most teams go into the offseason with the simple goal of identifying and addressing their needs. The Cubs recognized their needs early on, with Epstein talking about it at the end-of-the-year press conference. “We need quality pitching,” Epstein said. “I’m not going to rule anything out or anything in, except to say whether it’s through trade or free agency we’d like to add one quality pitcher this winter.”
Epstein also discussed striking out less as a team, as well as improving the outfield defense. It’s safe to say the Cubs accomplished their goal. They signed John Lackey (more on him later) to bring in a starting pitcher who slides into the No. 3 slot in the rotation behind Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. They got Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist as well, which not only improves their outfield defense but also the contact at the plate.
They damaged their rival
Lackey and Heyward, arguably the two biggest additions to the Cubs’ roster, were both stolen out from under the St. Louis Cardinals. Signing quality free agents to improve the team is always a positive, but it’s a major bonus when you’re able to simultaneously hurt your biggest rival. Lackey was the Cardinals’ best pitcher in 2015 and the only starter to get a win in the playoffs, shutting down the Cubs in game one of the NLDS.
Heyward was their best position player, posting a 6.0 WAR and winning the Gold Glove for right field in the National League. To add even more points to the Cubs’ unofficial score, the Cardinals did little to replace the lost production. They signed free agent starter Mike Leake to replace Lackey, but he’s never come close to the kind of production Lackey had for St. Louis last season. They didn’t replace 26-year-old Heyward and are instead relying on second-year players Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk to repeat their performances from 2015.
They found a way to bring back Fowler
This was the clincher. Even though the Cubs were set to put Heyward in center with Kyle Schwarber in left and Jorge Soler in right, the price drop on Fowler made it too good to pass up. It’ll be challenging for Manager Joe Maddon to keep everyone happy with their playing time, but having Fowler back improves the depth and defense, and it allows the Cubs to play matchups and sit Schwarber against tough left-handed pitchers.
Fowler changes so many things for the Cubs in a positive way. He’s good protection against injuries, which Soler has been known to struggle with. If the young Cuban right fielder has to miss extended time, the Cubs won’t be noticeably worse playing Schwarber, Fowler, and Heyward every day. Fowler also allows the Cubs to let Heyward play his natural position in right field, where he’s established himself as the best in the game on defense.
They were already really good
The Cubs won 97 games last season, had the third-best overall record in Major League Baseball, won the Wild Card game, beat the Cardinals in the NLDS, and returned to the NLCS for the first time in 12 years. They were no fluke, either. The team was legitimately talented in 2015, with a young squad full of talent and a manager who has both the experience and the personality to handle them. The best part? Beside Starlin Castro, they haven’t subtracted many key players.
Had the Cubs made only minor changes, they may not be the favorite to win the World Series next season. But they would still be in the discussion for winning the NL Central and possibly even being the league representative in the Fall Classic. The fact that they didn’t just rest on their laurels is the biggest reason they won the offseason. The Cubs’ front office took a great team and made them greater.
There’s no telling what the future holds for the Chicago Cubs of 2016. Anything short of a playoff appearance will be considered a failure, and that’s fair. While the team has made it clear that they’re going all in, the team is young, in its prime, and have built a window of contention of at least a few years. Not winning the World Series in 2016 won’t be the end of the world. But they’ve done everything they can to give themselves a shot.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanDavisBP