10 reasons why Cubs are only getting started
Capable of repeating as World Series champs, club has pieces to create dynasty
CHICAGO -- Theo Epstein and the Red Sox certainly didn't concede the 2005 season, but from the outside, it sure felt like there was a collective exhale in Boston when the White Sox knocked them out in the American League Division Series.
That had been a honeymoon season after the Red Sox ended their 86-year championship drought the previous October. They opened the year still celebrating their World Series sweep over the Cardinals and ended it tied with the Yankees for the AL East title (but losing the tiebreaker), and when they were swept by the White Sox, manager Terry Francona admitted they had been "[running] on fumes.''
The Red Sox would get back to the World Series and win again, but it took them three years.
The Cubs face a similar dynamic in 2017, as it's going to be a long time before their fans are ready to let go of '16.
But as they gather this weekend for the Cubs Convention, beginning to turn the page from Game 7 to Spring Training, this is a franchise that is capable not only of repeating as World Series champs but also of putting together the most sustained run since the Yanks went to the Series five times in six seasons, winning four championships from 1996-2001.
• Champs, trophy due at Cubs Convention
Here are 10 reasons the Cubs' future is as bright as their immediate past:
David Ortiz (then 28) was the youngest primary player on the Red Sox team that broke the curse. Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar and Mark Bellhorn were all in their 30s. The Cubs, on the other hand, were the youngest team to win the World Series since the 1969 Mets.
The Cubs had five primary position players in their age-26 or younger season, and that didn't include second baseman Javier Baez and catcher Willson Contreras (Benjamin Zobrist and Miguel Montero had more regular-season plate appearances).
Third baseman Kristopher Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo are the best two-way players in baseball at their position. Left fielder (and maybe backup catcher) Kyle Schwarber, who returned to go 7-for-17 in the World Series after missing almost all of the 2016 season, has teased fans by showing he may be on the same level as a hitter (1.178 OPS in 14 postseason games). No team has three better hitters in the middle of its lineup, and they're likely to play together for the next five years, if not longer.
3. Exploding revenue
The Cubs' first championship season since 1908 comes at the same time that Wrigley Field -- and the Wrigleyville area, much of which is controlled by Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and his family -- is undergoing a major overhaul. This offseason's work includes construction of a stadium club behind home plate and the addition of new seats down the lines, with bullpens being relocated under the outfield bleachers that were reconstructed in 2015.
As significant as the changes at the ballpark, the Cubs are working toward the end of their television contracts and should be able to significantly increase revenue in 2019 and beyond. They seem likely to launch their own network, like the YES Network in New York or NESN in Boston, putting the Cubs in position to compete financially against the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers for players.
4. Rotation anchors
Jacob Arrieta, who is eligible for free agency after 2017, may be in his last season with the Cubs. But Jonathan Lester and Kyle Hendricks could provide front-of-the-rotation certainty for years.
Lester enters his age-33 season pitching better than he did in his late-20s. He's signed through 2020, with an option for '21. Hendricks, who last season became the first Cub to lead the National League in ERA since 1945, enters his age-27 season with two years' service time, meaning he can't become a free agent until after 2020.
5. Coaching/Attention to detail
Epstein has not only built a top coaching staff but has kept it together.
Chris Bosio enters his sixth season as pitching coach; Lester Strode his 11th as bullpen coach. Base coaches Gary Jones (who does great work as infield coach) and Brandon Hyde are both in their fourth year. John Mallee is in his third year as hitting coach.
Epstein has used his resources to make the coaching staff essentially 10 deep, getting major contributions from Mike Borzello (catching/strategy coach), Eric Hinske (assistant hitting coach) and Franklin Font (staff assistant, in his 23rd year with the organization). Tommy Hottovy and Nate Halm, advance scouting coordinators, are also clubhouse presences, doing video work and planning that not that long ago often fell to members of the Major League coaching staff.
6. Man in the middle
Addison Russell, who enters his age-23 season, joined Brandon Crawford, Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons in playing Gold Glove-level defense last season (all four were worth at least +17 Defensive Runs Saved, per FanGraphs) while driving in 95 runs. He may never be as cool as Derek Jeter -- who is? -- but he could be just as valuable for the Cubs as Jeter was for the Yanks, provided he is interested in staying in one place like Jeter.
7. Man in charge
Manager Joe Maddon will be 63 when Spring Training arrives, but not that long ago, he assured Cubs fans that "60 is the new 40.'' He's been a godsend for Epstein, as he is a free thinker who is as good with players as he is the media.
While you can't pencil in Maddon for a 12-year stay with his powerhouse, which would match Joe Torre's run with the Yankees, he's got three years left on his contract and loves what he's doing. He's a good bet to land an extension at some point, assuming he wants to manage beyond 2019.
• Maddon rides coffee-shop 'vibe,' crafts lineup
Within the past three years, Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, Baez, Contreras, Jorge Soler (traded for closer Wade Davis) and Albert Almora Jr. have all made their Major League debut. Another top prospect, Gleyber Torres, was traded for Albertin Chapman. That's the only reason the Cubs' farm system currently ranks somewhere in the middle of the Major League pack.
But it's still a deep system, with hitters like Jeimer Candelario, Ian Happ and Mark Zagunis close to the Major Leagues and Trevor Clifton, Dylan Cease, Oscar de la Cruz and Jose Albertos among the power arms commanding attention.
• Cubs Pipeline
9. Fielding doesn't slump
Defense was the signature of the championship team, which wasn't an accident. Epstein values two-way players more than most general managers. That's why he gave Jason Heyward a $184 million contract. Heyward, Russell, Rizzo, Baez, Contreras and Almora are all capable of playing at a Gold Glove level in the field, and all of them are under team control through 2021.
10. Brain trust
Like Rizzo, Bryant and Schwarber, Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and top scout Jason McLeod have deals that run through 2021. The three leaders who joined the Cubs in the fall of 2011 all signed five-year contract extensions after last season.
It may not be too long until somebody makes McLeod or Hoyer an offer they can't refuse, hiring them to be president of baseball operations for another competitive franchise. But with Ricketts underwriting it, Epstein has built a deep front office that includes a number of candidates who could depart for a bigger role if openings present themselves.
They may not, however, as this is an organization that makes it tough to leave.