It’s not always easy to stick to your guns. Especially if the decisions you’re making aren’t all that popular.
When Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod first came aboard with the Cubs, they were hailed as conquering heroes who could do no wrong and would soon (and inevitably) carry the organization to the promised land. The Chicago Sun-Times even ran a tongue-in-cheek image of Epstein walking on water.
The new baseball operations men quickly laid out their plan, set a clear course of action and got to work. Their stated goal was to hire the best people in the business, stockpile young talent and build a player-development machine to get that young talent on the fast track to Wrigley Field.
Once the brain trust started making their first moves, the fan base gave them the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone loved seeing favorites like Andrew Cashner, Ryan Dempster and Sean Marshall go, but people figured everything the front office touched would turn to gold. On the plus side, the Cubs picked up first baseman Anthony Rizzo, signed Cuban free agent Jorge Soler and drafted outfielder Albert Almora, among other, less-heralded moves. Despite finishing 2012 with 101 losses, baseball ops stayed the course.
By the time the 2013 campaign came to a close, the voices of dissent were growing louder. The Cubs traded Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano and fired manager Dale Sveum after a 96-loss season. Yet, the front office remained steadfast. While people grumbled, the team acquired players like Jake Arrieta, Corey Black, C.J. Edwards, Justin Grimm and Pedro Strop; drafted Kris Bryant; and locked up Starlin Castro and Rizzo with team-friendly long-term deals.
Though the win-loss record didn’t improve dramatically in 2014, the Cubs’ collection of young talent—augmented by players like Billy McKinney, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber—hit critical mass. Now it’s undeniable the Cubs are coming fast, and people around baseball are taking notice. National columnists, local pundits and sports pages across the country are lauding the organization’s elite system.
For the past several years, if you were unwilling to look beyond the team playing at Wrigley Field, it was hard to see what the Cubs were building. When the major league team was losing, the idea of “top prospects” was too nebulous to provide much comfort. But once those same prospects started arriving in the bigs, it was hard to deny their energy, enthusiasm and raw talent.
Not every call-up posted huge numbers, but they all made strong impressions. Kyle Hendricks was occasionally dazzling, Jorge Soler demonstrated impact potential, and guys like Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantara and Eric Jokisch all showed flashes.
Through everything—all the losses, all the complaints, all the stories about the Cubs’ struggles—the front office never wavered from their plan, even when it would have been easier (and much better PR) to hold onto some of their veteran talent and/or throw money at risky free agents. Now that patience is starting to pay off.
I’m in no way saying the Commissioner’s Trophy should be on its way to Clark and Addison next season. Baseball is far too random to guarantee anything like that. But it’s undeniable the Cubs have built a formidable foundation of talent that is the envy of the baseball world.
In the October issue of Vine Line, Baseball Prospectus’ Sahadev Sharma examines the work the front office has been doing to assemble the top system in the game. We also give readers a sneak peek into a true baseball treasure, as we take a tour through the famous Wrigley Field manual scoreboard with the men who work inside. Finally, we go back to June 23, 1984, when Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg made the entire baseball world and a national TV audience take notice with two memorable home runs in the fabled Sandberg Game.
You can always find news on Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ storied past and the organization’s bright future in Vine Line and on Twitter at @cubsvineline. And stay tuned this offseason—things are about to get fun.
Last month, the Cubs kicked off the annual trade deadline frenzy with some big Fourth of July fireworks, sending starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics for infielder Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney, right-handed pitcher Dan Straily and a player to be named later.
In some ways, the trade was difficult for Cubs fans to stomach, as they lost two of the top pitchers from a team that was suddenly looking, dare I say, formidable. But it might also be the move that finally puts the team over the hump and on the path to sustained excellence at the big league level.
In exchange for a right-hander who was only under contract through 2014 (Hammel) and another under contract through 2015 and seemingly eager to test the free agent waters (Samardzija), the Cubs received the A’s top two prospects, including one of the best in the game, and an arm that could see time in the big league rotation this season.
No one likes trading proven talent, especially a longtime Cub like Samardzija. President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein made it clear several times in his press conference following the blockbuster deal how hard it was to part ways with the Shark.
“Nothing would make us happier than being in the position Oakland is in, which is to aggressively add to the big league team and enhance the team’s chances of making the postseason and winning the World Series,” Epstein said. “Being sellers is not what we want to do, so if we’re going to do it, we need to make it count. And we need to get a player back who significantly impacts the organization, helps change the landscape, helps make our future a heck of a lot better.”
In the past, Epstein has said there are two great currencies in baseball: deep reserves of young talent and massive amounts of payroll flexibility. The Cubs now have both.
Admittedly, most of this talent is still percolating in the minor leagues, but it’s coming fast. A year ago, it was the Big Three: Albert Almora, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler. This year—thanks to strong trades, draft picks and development—the Cubs have a Magnificent Seven of gifted hitters, with Arismendy Alcantara, Kris Bryant, Russell and Kyle Schwarber added to that mix.
Since the end of the steroid era, the big league pendulum has swung back toward pitching dominance, and hitting is becoming a rarer commodity. In other words, the Cubs are stockpiling the most precious resource in baseball—and they’ve got more of it than almost anyone else. With this trade, the organization now owns the No. 2 (Bryant), No. 5 (Russell) and No. 7 (Baez) prospects in the game, as ranked in the Baseball America midseason top 50.
Let me repeat that—the Cubs now have three of the top seven prospects in the game—and Baez is making his big league debut tonight in Colorado. Of course, prospects have a nasty habit of not always panning out as expected. But it’s important to remember all of these minor leaguers are essentially funneling into eight everyday major league spots. Two of those spots are already filled by 2014 All-Stars Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, while Alcantara and Baez are auditioning for two more.
This month, we look at cornerstone major leaguer Rizzo, who is having a terrific season on both sides of the ball and has taken a huge developmental step forward this year. We also say goodbye to Don Zimmer, a man who left an indelible mark on Cubs—and baseball—history over his 66 years in the dugout. Finally, we move off the diamond to the gridiron to remember what the Chicago Bears accomplished in their 50 years at the Friendly Confines, including Wrigley Field’s most recent championship in 1963.
To keep track of Cubs history—including history in the making—subscribe to Vine Line today and follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline. With the way things are coming together for the team, the next championship season may not be far off.
(Images by Brian Kersey/Getty Images)
Cubs catcher John Baker picked up his first career win, coming in as an emergency reliever in the top of the 16th inning of the Cubs’ 4-3 marathon win over Colorado. Then in the bottom half of the inning, Baker walked and scored the game-winning run on a Starlin Castro sacrifice fly to right field. The six-hour, 27-minute game was the longest in team history.
I’m a sucker for nostalgia, which is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed this season at Wrigley Field so much. I have been looking forward to Wrigley’s 100th birthday for a few years now because I knew it would give Vine Line a chance to really delve into the organization’s history.
We not only produce the magazine, but we also create the scorecards sold at the Friendly Confines during every home series. To tie in with the Cubs’ 10 Decades, 10 Homestands promotion, we’ve been populating the covers with photos specific to the years being celebrated—which means we’ve spent countless hours searching the team’s photo archives for just the right shots.
When the Yankees were in town during the 1930s homestand, we found a picture from the 1932 World Series between the North Siders and the Bronx Bombers. When the Cubs were honoring the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the 1940s series, we found a photo of the league’s tryouts, which were held at Wrigley Field in 1943.
In the interest of full disclosure, my home is littered with black-and-white photographs of everything from the Chicago Theater to my relatives during WWII to the Cubs at Spring Training on Catalina Island. I love this stuff, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t spent a few evenings looking through the photo archives just for fun.
In other words, this is probably something I shouldn’t get paid to do (though I probably don’t need to spread that news around).
Some of the things that caught my eye when we were planning our 2014 content for the magazine last year were the memorable program and scorecard covers the team used from the 1930s through the 1960s. We liked them so much, we decided to dedicate the valuable back page of the magazine (The Score) to featuring some of the best of the best this season.
When we wanted to learn more about the scorecards, we went to that amazing wellspring of arcane Cubs information from every era, team historian Ed Hartig, who has been an invaluable resource for all the historical content we’ve published this year. It turns out, for decades, most of the scorecard designs were the brainchild of one man, Otis Shepard, former art director for the William Wrigley Jr. Co. and longtime member of the Cubs board of directors. For our monthly Wrigley 100 feature, we look into the life and career of Shepard and how he came to design some of the Cubs’ most iconic images.
It’s also the July issue, which means it’s almost time for the Midsummer Classic. For our annual All-Star issue, we set out to find the most valuable Cubs player in each of Wrigley Field’s 10 decades. To do this, we used the stats website Fangraphs to compile the highest Wins Above Replacement totals for each decade. WAR essentially takes all of a player’s offensive and defensive efforts and outputs them into a single number designed to measure how many wins he provides over an average replacement player. There are definitely some names you would expect (I don’t think we could have a list like this without Mr. Cub), but there are also a few surprises (Rick Reuschel, anyone?).
Finally, Vine Line had a dream opportunity in May when the Yankees came to town. We worked with Yankees Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alfred Santasiere III to bring together two of the greatest shortstops the game has ever seen: Hall of Famer Ernie Banks and future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter. The legendary players sat down for a tête-à-tête that is every baseball fan’s dream come true.
Of course, we’re good for more than just history lessons. Follow us on Twitter at @cubsvineline for the best of the Cubs past, present and future.
And let’s keep that whole “shouldn’t get paid” thing between us.
Sometimes the gap between perception and reality can be exceedingly wide. What’s visible from the outside is often much different from what is being experienced on the inside.
Case in point, there are essentially two Starlin Castros.
There’s the Starlin Castro the fans see and have a love-hate relationship with. The one who is perceived by some as uncommitted, unfocused and inconsistent.
Much of this characterization is, of course, informed by the 2013 season. After two All-Star campaigns from 2011-12, in which Castro compiled 390 hits and earned a seven-year, $60 million contract, things went off the rails a little last year. Castro slipped to a .245/.284/.347 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line, often looking lost at the plate, bereft of the trademark confidence that defined his early career. That regression, coupled with some defensive lapses, have placed the 24-year-old’s every move under the fan and media microscope.
But there’s another Starlin Castro as well—the player his teammates see. This is the Castro who is putting up remarkable early-career numbers, goes to the post every day, is eager to learn, and brings constant energy and excitement to the clubhouse.
“He’s one of those guys who’s the face of the team,” said Cubs catcher and longtime teammate Welington Castillo. “I know a lot of people got on him last year, but that’s in the past. We have to move forward. It brings a lot of confidence for the team when he’s playing like this, when you see Starlin on the field. That’s a guy that never wants to be out of the lineup. He wants to play every day, no matter what. So he brings a lot of energy and a lot of positivity to the team.”
Through his age-23 season—which, as we all know, includes one very off year—the Cubs shortstop had compiled 692 hits. To put that into perspective, by age 23, Hank Aaron had 718 hits, Cal Ripken Jr. had 569, Derek Jeter had 385, and all-time hits leader Pete Rose had just 309.
In other words, the guy can rake. It’s difficult to fluke your way into 700 big league hits before you’re old enough to rent a car.
And through the first month-plus of the 2014 season, Castro looked to be back to his early-career form. His aggressiveness is back, and that has Cubs personnel excited about the future. For the June issue of Vine Line, we talk to Castro’s teammates, coaches and the man himself to find out what has triggered the young star’s resurgence.
As part of our ongoing Wrigley 100 series, we also go back to the 1940s at the Friendly Confines, when a group of trailblazing women turned the baseball world upside down. With World War II rationing taking its toll on major league attendance and players being redirected to the war effort, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley and other executives were desperate for a way to reinvigorate the game. Enter the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, popularized in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. We examine the role Cubs ownership and Wrigley Field played in the formation and life of the league.
Finally, with Father’s Day on the horizon, we get a little sentimental. Baseball is a tradition that has always been passed down from fathers to sons. To celebrate the holiday, we talk to current Cubs players about the impact their fathers have had on their lives and careers. Needless to say, when the Cubs take the field 162 times a year, there are some pretty excited dads out there.
For more in-depth stories about the Cubs organization, pick up the June issue of Vine Line, or subscribe for just $29.95. You can also find us on Twitter at @cubsvineline.