The first night of the Cubs’ dynasty
CLEVELAND — By the first week December of 2014, Jon Lester had narrowed his decision down to three clubs. One was the Red Sox, where he’d spent most of the previous nine years, most of them happy. The second was the Giants, who were pursuing the free agent starter by unusually creative means. They had even enlisted Buster Posey, their MVP catcher, to show up at Lester’s door outside Atlanta to deliver a recruiting pitch.
Those two teams had won four of the previous five World Series. Lester’s third suitor, meanwhile, hadn’t had quite that track record of recent success. The club just completed its fifth straight losing season, and its string of years without a ring stretched back just a bit farther. So Lester’s decision, on Dec. 9, came as a shock. He would be signing a six-year deal, worth $155 million, not with the Red Sox, and not with the Giants, but with the Chicago Cubs.
Just more than 22 months later, as his Cubs were surging through their second straight playoff run, Lester explained why the plan laid out for him by team president Theo Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and owner Tom Ricketts won him over. It centered not on Lester, but on the special talents of players who were in some cases nearly a decade younger than he was—and the other experienced ones with whom they would come to be surrounded. By 2015, Epstein told Lester, they should be a much better. By ’16, they should be contenders.
“It came down to us finally saying, here we go, and diving in, and really believing in what Theo and the front office, and Tom and all those guys, believed in from the get-go with their young guys,” Lester said. “They couldn’t have been more right about these guys. These guys are unbelievable kids and unbelievable players. It’s just amazing to see how ahead they are compared to a lot of younger guys.”
On Wednesday night in Cleveland, the Cubs beat the Indians 8–7 in a ten inning, Game 7 thriller, in the process not only putting an end to 108 years of misery, but making good on their promise to Lester.
“That was my favorite hug on the field,” a champagne-drenched Hoyer said of his embrace with Lester, who, on two days rest, pitched three innings in relief of starter Kyle Hendricks, allowing one earned run. “He believed in us first. That was really important. This was literally the exact plan we presented to him, and that doesn’t happen very often. Here are all the young guys, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how we’re going to spend money. Be the first on board, and we’ll make it worth your while. We begged him to come for this reason. It’s easy to hear a sales pitch, but it’s a lot harder to go in that direction. He signed with a 73-win team. Give that guy credit.”
Game 7 was a perfect representation of the Cubs’ balance, between the right veterans and budding young stars. Each of Chicago’s eight runs were driven in by a different player. Three of them were 33 or older: Miguel Montero, Ben Zobrist and the retiring David Ross. Three were 24 or younger: Javier Baez, Willson Contreras and Addison Russell.
Of all of those RBIs, one of the most important came off the bat of Zobrist. It was Zobrist who put a stop to the momentum the Indians had generated with their furious comeback, with a hard double to left to put Chicago up in the top of the 10th; the 35-year-old would be named the MVP after a World Series in which he batted .391. He is not young, but he was the type of player on whom the Cubs promised Lester they’d also spend their money—they gave him a four-year, $56 million free agent deal last December—in part for his ability to lead his callow teammates, in nuanced ways. “You could have a bunch of old guys that are a——-, you know?” Lester said early Thursday morning. Zobrist—who also led another callow team, the Royals, to a championship last season—is not one of those.
“He’s a great guy to watch when you’re a young guy trying to learn,” said Kyle Schwarber, the 23-year-old slugger who led off the 10th with a single and was replaced with pinch-runner Albert Almora, who would come around to score on Zobrist’s double. “I always talk to him about how he approaches guys, see if I can pick something up from that.”
That sort of impact is hard to quantify, but real, believes Hoyer. “We struck out way too much in the playoffs last year,” he said—a remarkable 85 times in just nine games against the Pirates, Cardinals and Mets, in fact. “We didn’t strike out once against Corey Kluber tonight. Zobrist was a huge part of that.”
The Cubs front office’s timeline, as they presented it to Lester, has now proved prescient. The unsettling thing, for the rest of baseball, is what they envisioned happening after 2016. Epstein and Hoyer had no desire to spend five years constructing a roster capable of taking a one-time shot at a title. He wanted one that could reach deep October again, and again and again. It requires only a narrow imagination to see that this is not at all far from reality, as their ideal mix won’t appreciably change in the long haul.
Start in the near term. Only four players from the Cubs’ World Series roster were certain to become free agents five days after they put away the Indians but, with apologies to Chris Coghlan and Travis Wood, only two were truly part of the club’s nucleus: Ross and closer Aroldis Chapman. Both, though, will be replaceable. The retiring Ross was already splitting time with Contreras, the 24-year-old rookie who might already be one of the best backstops in the game. Bullpen reinforcements should prove relatively easy for a successful and wealthy club to find this winter, perhaps Chapman himself, if not Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon.
Other than those players—and possibly centerfielder Dexter Fowler, who could turn down his $10 million club option—the club that just won a championship will look almost identical going forward. Of course a few key, if aging, pieces will fall off the books as the years progress: Montero, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey and Pedro Strop after 2017; Hector Rondon after 2018; Zobrist after 2019; Kyle Hendricks and Jorge Soler after 2020.
But think about who that means will remain under control through at least 2021—for five full seasons after the Cubs had already realized their fans’ dreams, and when Jon Lester could still be pitching for them at the age of 37, if his workload-based option is triggered.
It’s the entirety of what is already the league’s best young infield, in Contreras, Baez, Russell, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant—as well as Schwarber, who hits so well he doesn’t seem to need a position. All of them, save Rizzo, became world champions before they turned 25—Rizzo is a relatively ancient 27—and, in fact, all of them were in the lineup together for both Game 2, the Cubs’ first win in a World Series game since 1945, and Game 7, when they clinched their first title since 1908. These are the young guys in whom Epstein believed, and in whom he convinced Lester to believe.
Also on the books, for longer than any of them (at the moment anyway), will be Jason Heyward, who will make around $24 million a year through 2022. Heyward’s poor play kept him out of Joe Maddon’s starting lineup for the first three games of the Series, but that the Cubs were able to end their curse without receiving much from their highest paid player is, as much as anything else, a testament to their overwhelming depth. Heyward, though, is just 27. He has plenty of time to return to form, and thereby deepen that talent pool even further.
On Wednesday, Heyward showed that he has it in him to become the clubhouse leader who could replace former fixtures like the departing Ross, and eventually Zobrist. Heyward went 0 for 5 in Game 7, but it was he who called the team together during the brief rain delay before extra innings, when they were still staggered from the Indians’ comeback. “Come in here. I’ve got something to say,” Heyward commanded. “You know what? Whatever’s happened up to this point in the game, we’ve got to forget about it. It’s over. We’re still the best team. We’re going to pull this thing out. We need to pull together and chip away. We’re going to win this game.”
After that, said Zobrist, “Everybody kind of rallied together like we’ve always done all year long. It would have been tough. Most teams would have folded in that moment where we lost that lead. Hat’s off to J and Rossy and our other leaders, for just making that moment happen and kind of turning the page for us.”
Nothing is guaranteed, and baseball’s labyrinthine playoff structure means that 2016 was a rarity, in that its best team won the World Series. But it is entirely fathomable that by the time his free agent deal expires, Lester—already a champion twice in Boston and once in Chicago—will have at least a full hand’s worth of rings. And it is not crazy to believe that after 108 years, it’s no longer the Cubs who are cursed, but the rest of the league.
Will Wednesday, Nov. 2 be remembered as the first night of the Cubs’ dynasty? “Hopefully,” said Schwarber. Then, he thought better of it, and said firmly: “I think so.”