Cubs solidifying winning new reality
After 97-win campaign, Chicago has only gotten better with offseason moves
Becoming accustomed to the Chicago Cubs being at the head of the class will not be an automatic activity. I mean, anyone less than 107 years old has not had any practice with this situation.
Yet we must all acknowledge that the Cubs emerged from the first half of December as a Major League success story in the category of getting exactly what they needed.
Of course, no championships are won in December. But you can get a nice head start on a championship, even before New Year's Eve.
And the whole 2015 season was like Spring Training for seeing the Cubs in a new light. There is no chuckling at 97 victories. That was the third-best record in baseball, although it was also the third-best record in the National League Central.
You bring in Joe Maddon as manager, and right away you have one shrewd dude on hand, a winning combination of advanced metrics and a genuine human touch.
Then you add Jon Lester. Jake Arrieta comes through with the best post-All-Star ERA since the invention of the All-Star Game. And throughout it all, there is this wealth of position-player talent, developing, maybe ahead of schedule, but developing.
The Cubs got better over the season, just as Maddon had said they would. They couldn't handle the Cardinals initially, but by October, their NL Division Series meeting, the Cubs were on top. And this was a St. Louis team that had won 100 games.
The Cubs stopped being a punchline the minute they hired Maddon. And they became progressively more like a threat than a joke as they developed over the season. But since then, they have only become better, which is tough to do when your baseline of comparison is 97 victories.
There was the addition of John Lackey, coming off a fine season with the Cards. At the Winter Meetings, Maddon envisioned how this would go.
"You walk into a three-game series," Maddon said, "and the other team calls for your pitching, and you say: 'It's going to be Lester, Arrieta and Lackey.' They don't like that."
Then the Cubs get Ben Zobrist to play second and whatever else is needed. Zobrist thrived while being versatile when he played for Maddon with Tampa Bay. He's coming off a big postseason performance as an integral part of the Kansas City Royals' World Series championship. Zobrist said he was drawn by the opportunity to bring a championship to Chicago's North Side.
The Cubs have been adding pitching. A particularly useful addition could be Adam Warren, who came from the Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade. Castro's departure opened up a spot for Zobrist. The Cubs are working like a Swiss watch now. Anyway, Warren has demonstrated that he can pitch successfully either in relief or as a starter, and that sort of versatility can be invaluable.
And then we get to the daily double, the eight-year, $184 million deal for outfielder Jason Heyward. This was a major addition for the Cubs, but it was also a major loss for the Redbirds. They liked him a lot in his one season in St. Louis. They liked him both professionally and personally.
"It's been an honor and a pleasure to get to know him personally," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.
But Heyward went to the Cubs.
Think about it. Say that in the recent past there was a top-shelf free agent deciding between the Cubs and the Cards. It would have taken him less time than an intentional walk and he wouldn't have been heading toward the North Side.
Now, it has become cool to play for the Cubs. The perception is that you can make history. Hey, you can even break history. You can be part of a baseball rebirth, after a century-plus drought.
Of course, other clubs will have something to say about this. The Mets swept the Cubs in the NL Championship Series and the Mets will still have that terrific pitching. Zobrist passed on the Mets to go to the Cubs, but still, the Mets aren't disappearing.
And the Cardinals do their best work when people write them off. They should start that best work any minute now.
But if you add the first six weeks of the offseason to the 2015 season, what you have is a bright, shining new reality for the Chicago Cubs. They seem to be adjusting to it nicely. The rest of us may require more practice.