With the third overall pick of the 2007 Major League Baseball first-year player draft, the Chicago Cubs selected Josh Vitters. Like most early round draft picks during the Jim Hendry era, the high ceiling, low floor high school third baseman tantalized the imaginations of the Chicago faithful. And like most early round draft picks during the Jim Hendry era, he fell far short of the lofty (and arguably unfair) career exploits that Cubs fans dreamed of. Deemed a top 100 prospect by Baseball America for three consecutive years (2007-2009), Vitters was out of baseball less than five seasons later. In 109 big league plate appearances spanning 36 career games, the former first round draft pick slashed .121/.193/.202.
The careers of the other 32 players selected and signed by the Cubs in 2007 reflect a similar trajectory. Sure, Hendry’s front office selected Josh Donaldson in the supplemental round, but he, a season later, was traded to the Oakland Athletics and did not win an MVP award until he revamped his swing and migrated north of the U.S. border. Of the players selected by the Cubs, Darwin Barney―the weak hitting, slick fielding second baseman―was the only player to achieve marginal success in a Chicago uniform.
Yet despite these uninspiring organizational results, the 2007 MLB draft produced three players who were instrumental in the 2016 championship run. And each of these players embodied characteristics of the organization’s long awaited exodus to the promised land.
Act One: Despair: Jake Arrieta (Baltimore Orioles; 5th round, 159th overall)
In his introductory press conference in the fall of 2011, Theo Epstein shared a vision. Articulating his plan of building an organization capable of sustained success, he emphasized that the actualization of the blueprints would require much more than a few minor tweaks.
As the beneficiary of an aging, underperforming, and overpaid big league roster, Epstein would need to tear down the decaying infrastructure and start from square one: veterans would be traded, the payroll would be slashed, and the big league club would lose by design in an effort to secure early first round draft picks.
The rebuilding years, Epstein said, would be dark. But with the confidence of an inspired prophet, he declared that a perennial championship contender would arise from the depths of despair.
Seven hundred miles east, a pitcher in Baltimore had just put the finishing touches on a truly terrible season. The next year was even worse, and Jake Arrieta, his career in shambles, was on the verge of walking away from the game. The Cubs, however, thought otherwise. Taking a flyer on a pitcher with a career ERA of 5.46, they flew him to Chicago and introduced him to pitching coach Chris Bosio.
Act Two: Hope: Anthony Rizzo (Boston Red Sox; 6th round, 204th overall)
Promise on the farm by way of Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber had fans once again dreaming of postseason glory. The big league club in Chicago imbued no such optimism. As promised, the rebuilding years were dark, and the losses came flooding in: 101 in 2012, 96 in 2013, and 89 in 2014.
During the three seasons of cellar dwelling futility, Anthony Rizzo was the source of some of the few rays of sunshine that shone through the thick clouds hanging over Wrigley. Drafted by Epstein in Boston and acquired by Jed Hoyer in San Diego, he was reunited with both men in Chicago before the 2012 season.
For management, he was the cornerstone on which they would build a championship contender. For fans, he embodied the hopeful promise that the dark years of the rebuild would end with milk and honey. And for cancer patients in the Chicago area, he was a source of encouragement for children battling for their lives. A survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Rizzo made visiting hospitals a regular part of his weekly routine.
Act Three: Deliverance: Jason Heyward (Atlanta Braves; 1st round, 14th overall)
After a deep playoff run in 2015 that surpassed even the most optimistic of expectations, the team’s front office went shopping for the final pieces of their championship puzzle. Adding a pair of veteran position players to their young offensive core, and a playoff-tested bulldog to the back end of their front loaded rotation, the Cubs entered the 2016 season widely regarded as championship favorites.
This was, industry experts prophesied, the year that the Lovable Losers would exorcise the demons that tormented four generations of fans. But expectations are a funny thing, and the Cubs, until last year, had a poor track record of living up to them. The collapse in 2003, the underperformance of 2004, and the first round playoff exits (by way of three game sweeps) in 2007 and 2008 demonstrate the crippling effects that the heavy weight of expectations can have on an organization that hasn’t won a championship since 1908.
Enter Joe Maddon’s glass-half-full message of positivity. Reframing great expectations as a force to channel instead of fear, Maddon encouraged his team to “embrace the target.” And they did. The 2016 performances of seemingly every player either met or exceeded pre-season expectations―that is, with one notable exception: their recently acquired $184 million right fielder.
After posting some of the best offensive numbers of his career with the division rival Cardinals in 2015, Heyward turned down a more lucrative contract offer from St. Louis, opting instead to sign with Chicago. Called a Judas by Cardinals fans, Heyward, in an imperfect analogy and for unforeseen reasons, became the Cubs’ Messiah.
Although he provided tremendous value with his glove and legs, his offensive performance proved to be a liability. An early season slump gave way to mid-season panic and late season woes. Heyward grinded and pressed; was booed and then platooned.
It’s as if the baseball gods placed an entire team’s worth of expectations on the shoulders of a single man. Under the collective weight of 108 years of hopes and dreams, Heyward was crushed. But he wasn’t dead.
His moment of deliverance came just as his team was at its darkest hour. Having just blown a three run lead in game seven of the World Series, grown men cried and the irreligious began to believe in the supernatural power of a Goat. But then, in a player’s only meeting during a providential rain delay, a voice arose in the Garden of Gethsemane. From a bearded man crushed by the living hell that is a season long slump, there came a Speech.
Less than an hour later, the Cubs were champions, the Goat was dead, and the Chicago faithful found themselves in a catatonic state of bliss. From the depths of despair, Jake Arrieta had arisen, anchored the best starting rotation in baseball, and recorded a win in each of his two World Series starts. Anthony Rizzo, the ray of hope in the dark years of the rebuild, had become the steady force of a potent lineup brimming with young offensive talent. And Jason Heyward, the $184 million free agent who couldn’t hit his weight, provided divine inspiration when his team most needed it.
These three players, drafted nearly a decade ago, were not selected and signed by the Chicago Cubs. Yet, through a series of acquisitions, each of them found themselves wearing blue pinstripes in a historic stadium tucked away on the North Side. And each of them, in their own special way, became symbolic characters in what will undoubtedly endure as the century’s greatest sports story.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports