MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs

They Built It, and the Cubs Are Coming

I love a lot of things about baseball, but the thing I love most—at least off the field—is roster construction. There’s something beautifully technical and delicate about putting together a group of 25 guys that, while limited by certain constraints (age, positional ability, money), will produce the most wins possible for your ballclub. It’s a really, really hard thing to do well, and those who’ve proven that they have what it takes to make it happen get paid the big bucks: Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, in this case, in Chicago. On the eve of the first postseason game for the North Side ballclub since 2008, I decided to take a look back at how this 2015 team was built, more as an aide memoire than as anything else. It turned out to be a fairly interesting and immensely gratifying experience.

In the absence of a postseason roster (something of a state secret at this point), I decided to focus on the 12 position players with the most plate appearances this year—a list that includes Jonathan Herrera—and the 13 pitchers with the most innings pitched—a group which includes James Russell and Tsuyoshi Wada, one of whom is already off the team and one who will be shortly. There’s no other, fairer way to do it, so you’re just going to have to bear with me. The exercise is still interesting even with them included, I promise. I’d thought, entering the process, that I’d find a lot of draftees and international free agent signings, with a few star free agents and some traded players thrown into the mix. Boy, was I wrong. The biggest—and certainly the most significant—group of players came into the organization by way of trade. Let’s start with them.


  • Jake Arrieta
  • Dexter Fowler
  • Justin Grimm 
  • Dan Haren
  • Kyle Hendricks
  • Miguel Montero
  • Anthony Rizzo
  • Addison Russell
  • Pedro Strop
  • Travis Wood

The players are listed here in alphabetical order, and what a group they are. The foremost among them, Anthony Rizzo, came into the organization in the early days of 2012 in a trade that sent Andrew Cashner and Kyung-min Na to San Diego. Cashner’s been pretty good since he went there, but wouldn’t you rather have Rizzo right now?

Speaking of guys you’d rather have right now, don’t  sleep on the deal that brought Dexter Fowler to Chicago. Remember that when he was brought in—late in the 2014-15 offseason—it still wasn’t clear to outsiders that Kris Bryant was going to be ready to take over third base. Sending Luis Valbuena to Houston, after he’d performed serviceably at third base for two years, was something of an act of faith. It paid off: Valbuena’s been perfectly acceptable in Houston, especially in the power department, but Bryant’s been better in Chicago, and Fowler has plugged two holes in the Cubs’ roster—in the lineup and on the field—and by all accounts has been a great teammate in the clubhouse.

There are other trades to talk about here—too many, actually—but the takeaway is this: the two huge stars of this team came in by trade (Anthony Rizzo and, ahem, Jake Arrieta) and neither was a slam dunk deal when it was made. Trades are hard at the best of times, and this front office had to deal from a position of weakness time and time again, and came out the winner each time. They deserve a great deal of credit.


  • Kris Bryant
  • Kyle Schwarber

I was at Wrigley when the Cubs drafted Kyle Schwarber. I remember, because I had to Google him after the pick, and I missed half the game trying to find out everything I could about him. I’d seen him on a few draft boards in late May, but didn’t give him a great deal of thought; if the Cubs were going to go for a college hitter, as I thought they might, I figured they’d target Michael Conforto. Turns out it’s a good thing I don’t run the show: Conforto dropped to the Mets with the 10th pick, and the Cubs took Kyle Schwarber at four. In a perfect world, you’d love to have both—Conforto’s starring for the Mets right now—but I’ll take Schwarber any day of the week. The front office obviously hit a home run with Bryant as well, but that was a comparatively easy choice. Taking Schwarber was hard, and flew in the face of industry sentiment. They did it anyway, and it’s paid off.


  • Starlin Castro
  • Jorge Soler

Remember how much Starlin Castro signed for in 2006? Anyone? Anyone? I’ll save you the trouble: it was $50,000. The difference between that number and what Jorge Soler got in 2012—$30 million—tells you much less about the difference in talent between the two players than it does about how much the game has turned around on international signings in the six years between Castro’s contract and Soler’s. Yeah, the Cuban probably has a higher ceiling, but it’s not 600 times higher. Credit Jim Hendry’s regime (many of whom still lead the international scouting department for the Cubs) for finding Castro in 2006, and for recognizing the potential in the international market before a lot of other clubs caught on. Credit Tom Ricketts, as well, for opening the purse strings for his new general manager just a few months into the job and signing Soler in the face of stiff competition. Neither player may ever reach their potential, although Starlin Castro in September is getting close to his, but both have provided some beautiful moments for the Wrigley faithful.


  • Hector Rondon

I suppose “Rule 5 Picks” shouldn’t really be pluralized. After suffering multiple elbow injuries, the Indians left the once-highly thought of Rondon unprotected assuming no one would be willing to roster him for an entire season. However, with the Cubs preparing for another rough year, for the second year in a row (after Lendy Castillo in 2012) the front office plucked Rondon in the draft and stashed him on their big-league roster for most of the 2013 season. He threw 54 2/3 innings that year, enjoying a significant velocity jump by September (average 97.4 mph on his four-seamer in the season’s final month, over five mph above what he was flashing in April), and he truly blossomed last year, posting a 2.42 ERA over 63 1/3 innings. This year Rondon’s been even better, putting up a 1.67 ERA over 70 innings, a 4.6 strikeout to walk ratio, and occasionally hitting 100 mph on the gun. This is exactly how the Rule 5 system is supposed to work, and I couldn’t be happier for Rondon, who’s one of the more earnest guys on the team.


  • Chris Coghlan
  • Chris Denorfia
  • Jason Hammel
  • Jonathan Herrera
  • Jon Lester
  • Jason Motte
  • Clayton Richard
  • David Ross
  • James Russell
  • Tsuyoshi Wada

This is an interesting mix, no? Jon Lester’s presence in the middle of the list obscures it, but there’s actually a pretty clear trend here: this Cubs front offices uses free agency to fill highly targeted on-field roles, and to provide leadership in the clubhouse. They don’t spend a ton of money on it, and they don’t use it to try to win 10 games at a time; free agency, for them, is about the little things—an edge here, an advantage there. Oh, and then there’s Lester. That signing was, honestly, a little bit about winning 10 games at a time, and—in his particular case—it was about sending a message to the rest of the league that the Cubs were coming, and coming fast. It was about telling other potential free agents that Chicago was a destination, and that it should be a place they would want to be. And it was about a left-handed ace with a postseason pedigree, a nasty cutter, and no history of arm trouble. A lot of fans have gotten pretty worked up over the possibility of adding David Price this offseason. I wouldn’t be so sure that it’s going to happen. I’ll say it again: Lester obscures the larger trend when it comes to the Cubs and free agents. You’re far more likely to see a star come to town via trade, and a role player come in via contract.


A few days ago, I sat down and watched Theo Epstein’s introductory press conference in its entirety. It was an enjoyable experience, and I highly recommend it:

My biggest takeaway was this: the Cubs’ leadership knew what they were going to do when they got here, told everyone they could exactly what it was they were going to do, and then went out and did it. There were a lot of folks who didn’t believe them most of the way—either didn’t believe that they knew what they were doing, or didn’t believe that they could actually deliver—but the fact is that they did know what they were doing, and they have delivered. The 2015 Cubs just wrapped up a regular season in which they won 97 games, and even if they lose on Wednesday, this season has been a roaring success. Watch that press conference. You’ll hear the same words then that you do today. Roster construction is a beautiful thing, and these guys are the best of it. The Cubs are coming, and these guys made it so.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.

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2 comments on “They Built It, and the Cubs Are Coming”


Still surprised Johnny Gomes isn’t a part of this article. Always thought his acquisition was a fait accompli.

Rian Watt

Yeah, I’ve thought it might be for a while, too. Still could happen, but it got a lot less likely when he wasn’t picked up at the trade deadline. Thanks for reading!

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