Let’s be honest, the Chicago Cubs have done a lot right since Theo Epstein arrived. Even though the first three years of his tenure were marked by failure on the field in Chicago, a ton of evidence suggested that a sleeping giant would awaken soon. Then, in 2015, it finally happened; the Cubs finished with the third-best MLB record and a trip to the NLCS. Now, the Cubs boast the best record in 2016 and are waiting to write the script on the rest of the MLB season. While it’s certainly okay in the long run if the Cubs don’t win the World Series this season, they’ve done everything they can to make it possible. Here are seven of the biggest things the Cubs did right.
1. Trade for Anthony Rizzo
One of the first moves that Epstein’s front office made was trading a young, talented starting pitcher, Andrew Cashner, for a first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, who originally struggled during his initial stint in the big leagues. The swap couldn’t have worked out better for the Cubs. At 26 years old, Rizzo has hit 132 home runs in a Chicago Cubs uniform, with a .862 OPS and 21.6 WAR over the last five-and-a-half seasons.
Cashner, on the other hand, dealt with injury issues and never quite developed into the potential ace many thought he could become. In 56 starts over the last two seasons, the 30-year-old has a 4.71 ERA and 307 2/3 innings pitched. It’s unfortunate the way things worked out for him, but the Cubs could not be happier with Rizzo, now a fan favorite in Chicago.
2. Commit to hitters
It would be easy — and possibly lazy — to say that drafting Kris Bryant is something Chicago did right. But, well, it is. However, selecting Bryant contributed to a larger philosophy; it’s not just an isolated event. The 2013 MLB Draft involved two highly touted pitchers on the board, Mark Appel and Jon Gray, and the Cubs had the No. 2 draft pick. Without much in the way of pitching prospects in the minor leagues, it made sense for the Cubs to grab whoever came their way.
However, they took third baseman/outfielder Bryant, who has transformed into an absolute superstar. In the early rounds of the same draft, Epstein’s front office also chose Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. All three of these players were highly regarded prospects while in the minors with the Cubs, and all of them will likely experience nice careers in the major leagues.
3. Trading Ryan Dempster to the Rangers
Back in 2012, the Cubs looked to trade away aging veterans and acquire young talent who could set the team up for a successful future. 35-year-old starting pitcher Ryan Dempster was pitching well, with a 2.25 ERA in 16 starts and 104 innings. But he used his 10/5 no-trade rights to block a deal that would’ve sent him to the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Randall Delgado.
The Cubs quickly worked out a new deal, this time with the Texas Rangers, that Dempster ultimately accepted. This brought the Cubs young pitching prospect Kyle Hendricks. When you take into account the fact that Dempster only pitched in 12 games with the Rangers before moving on and signing with the Boston Red Sox, getting a now-26-year-old Cy Young candidate out of the deal is pretty remarkable from the Cubs’ standpoint.
4. Calling up the kids
In a pennant race, you’ll often see teams either sit back on young kids performing in the minor leagues or call them up, only to see them ride the bench in favor of veteran players. The Cubs did not operate this way. Bryant was in the lineup and batting fourth in his first big-league game, without even so much as a mention of easing him in.
Javier Baez, Tommy La Stella, Almora, Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and Willson Contreras all came up to the big leagues in recent years and participated in a “baptism by fire” of sorts with the Cubs. Baez’s wizardry in the infield, Almora’s confidence in the outfield, Schwarber’s booming home runs, and Soler’s incredible October all rewarded the team heavily.
5. Trading for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop
Another “duh” on our list, but it must be pointed out. Acquiring a former top prospect who was nearly released by the Baltimore Orioles and turning him into one of the best pitchers in the game… This may involve as much luck and genius on the Cubs’ part, but they succeeded either way. The Cubs made a midseason deal in 2013 to send starting pitcher Scott Feldman to the Orioles in exchange for relief pitcher Pedro Strop and struggling 27-year-old starting pitcher Jake Arrieta.
While Arrieta is the marquee name, with a 2.47 ERA in 96 starts in a Cubs uniform, even Strop has been worth the deal by himself. The right-handed reliever with a wicked slider has performed exceptionally this season, one of the best setup men in all of baseball since the time of the trade. He has a 2.69 ERA in 228 appearances with the Cubs since 2013.
6. Bringing Dexter Fowler back
When the Cubs brought outfielder Jason Heyward over from St. Louis, there was a strong notion that centerfielder Dexter Fowler was as good as gone. He experienced an excellent season in 2015, getting on base at a .346 clip and providing the Cubs with 2.2 WAR. 30-year-old Fowler was a spark at the top of the lineup, and the Cubs’ run to the playoffs coincided with his excellent second-half hitting.
But the Cubs simply refused to rest on their laurels, bringing Fowler back and creating what appeared to be an overly crowded outfield. The ACL injury suffered by Schwarber made things a bit less crowded, and even though Fowler also spent over a month on the disabled list, he’s put together a tremendous season with 3.7 WAR.
7. Signing Jon Lester
Before the Cubs even stepped onto the field in 2015, they already made their biggest move toward legitimacy. Coming off a season in which Jon Lester posted a 2.46 ERA in 219 2/3 innings for the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s, the 31-year-old hit the free-agent market looking for a big, long contract and a place where he could envision winning in the long term. This place was Chicago.
The Cubs couldn’t have asked more of Lester, who signed a seven-year, $155 million deal with the team prior to the 2015 season. He’s started 61 games in a Cubs uniform with a 2.89 ERA and 389 innings pitched — even looking like a candidate for the Cy Young award this season. Among all the big moves the Cubs got right, this one might just be the biggest.