November 8, 2016

ELDEN | How the Chicago Cubs Built a Championship Roster

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The Chicago Cubs won the World Series last week for the first time in 108 years. The Cubs also had 103 wins, more than any other team in baseball and more than they had won in any season over the last 100 years. The Cubs have an extremely talented roster, which was mostly put together by a brilliant front office, lead by executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod and others. The crux of the roster was built by strong drafting, under the radar trades and international free agency.

“You can’t count on building a super-team and that will translate to winning the World Series,” Epstein told CSN Chicago. “The best way to do it is have really good teams year after year, get in year after year. And eventually you’ll win it.”

He did just that. The only significant player added after the season started was closer Aroldis Chapman, who perhaps came at the highest price of any player on the team. He was acquired for a four-player package headlined by shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres and outfielder Billy McKinney.

Torres was an international free agent, signed by Hoyer and Epstein in 2013. McKinney was acquired in a deadline deal sending established pitcher Jeff Samardjiza to the Oakland Athletics. Chapman allowed just three runs in 26.2 innings while striking out 45 batters with the Cubs in their final stretch of the season, and then pitching well in the postseason. This acquisition would not have been possible if not for the strong drafting and international scouting of their front office.

The Cubs’ two most productive offensive players this last season were infielders Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Bryant — a homegrown talent — was drafted second overall in 2013 and hit 39 home runs and posted a 149 OPS+ — the standard OPS, but leveraged against the league average — at the age of 24 this past season.

He is an elite young bat who will be part of the Cubs’ core for years, and helped them break the curse. Rizzo, on the other hand, was acquired from the Padres back in 2011 for pitcher Andrew Cashner. Since the deal, Rizzo has hit 133 home runs with a 134 OPS+. He is a three-time all-star and has been worth the trade many times over. This was essentially Hoyer’s first major transaction as the Cubs’ general manager, made with the team he had just departed from.

The pitching staff was headlined by three aces: Dartmouth alumnus Kyle Hendricks, a resurgent Jake Arrieta and southpaw Jon Lester. Hendricks — led the NL in ERA and is a 2016 CY Young candidate — was acquired in 2012 as a prospect in the Ryan Dempster trade, an inexpensive piece that paid off. Arrieta — 2015’s CY Young award winner — was acquired with reliever Pedro Strop for depth pieces Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger at the 2013 trade deadline. Lester was signed to a six-year, $155 million dollar contract two offseasons ago. He was one of the few significant pieces for the 2016 World Series team that were signed out of free agency by Chicago. His deal paid off, as he struck out 197 and posted a 164 ERA+, the highest of his career.

Another notable free agent signing came in the form of $184 million man Jason Heyward, though his performance during the season was less than ideal. Heyward, 27, signed an eight-year, 184 million dollar contract last offseason and managed just a .230 average with a pitiful OPS+ of 70. He provided above-average defense, but was arguably the worst offensive player on the team immediately after signing the most lucrative contract on the roster. They Heyward addition was expected to add much more firepower to a Cubs team that was the best in the league without his help.

Cubs infielders Addison Russell and Javier Baez continue to push the theme of good drafting and under-the-radar trades creating the Cubs core. Russell contributed 4.3 wins above replacement and Baez was worth 3.4 wins. Russell was acquired in the same Samardjiza trade that brought the Cubs — and eventually the Yankees — McKinney. Baez was drafted ninth overall in 2011 by the Cubs.

The aforementioned players composed the core of the Cubs championship team, however there were many more players that contributed to their success. The majority of the team’s prosperity can be attributed to the Cubs’ front office, and their intelligent trades, drafting decisions, and international free agent signings.

Free agency was an avenue also used to improve the team, however, it was not the most efficient or the most reliable method. The team put together a roster of homegrown talent and supplemented the natural results with intermittent acquisitions when necessary, exemplifying Epstein’s philosophy.