CHICAGO – The final outs somehow fit. Wrigley Field was about to burst Saturday night when Yasiel Puig stepped to the plate, one out, man on first. Aroldis Chapman, inarguably among the best closers in the game, threw heat, and Puig hit a bouncer to short.
As Wrigley’s eyes widened, Addison Russell took the grounder and flipped to Javier Baez for the force at second. Baez screamed a throw to first, where Anthony Rizzo recorded the out that put the Cubs into their first World Series since 1945.
That moment, a simple double play to put away the Los Angeles Dodgers in the sixth game of the National League Championship Series, will be played in Chicago forever, the first historic .gif for a city with a deep sports past. But it was fitting, too, because the players involved represent how these Cubs were built, and why it might not take another 71 years for another play like it.
When Theo Epstein was hired as the Cubs president of baseball operations in the fall of 2011, Baez was already in Chicago’s organization, but he was about to turn 19 and play his first full season at Class A. So the build-up to that double play took faith, vision, discipline and skill, not just from Epstein, but from his general manager and longtime lieutenant Jed Hoyer, as well as scouting and player development director Jason McLeod and the entire staff below them.
While Baez, who shared NLCS MVP honors with veteran lefty Jon Lester, developed in the lower levels of the minors, Russell and Rizzo were developing with other organizations. Epstein and Hoyer looked at their organizational depth chart, which was barren in Class AA and AAA.
“We had to be patient,” Hoyer said.
There is a translation there: They had to be prepared to lose, which they did – 101 games in the first summer of Epstein’s tenure, 96 the next.
“It wasn’t all that painful,” Epstein said Saturday night, standing in shallow center field at Wrigley, not far from where Russell and Baez turned the double play. “It was probably more painful for our fans. For us, there were some trying moments, but it was fun being so focused on acquiring young talent, having this in mind as a goal, and all pulling together the same direction.”
Through two rounds of the playoffs, the Cubs have had 26 players on their active roster (swapping off infielder Tommy La Stella for lefty Rob Zastryzny between the division series and the NLCS). Of those players, only Baez and catcher-left fielder Willson Contreras were in the organization when Epstein and his team arrived. Contreras was in a similar position as Baez, preparing for his first full season of low-Class A ball.
And yet when Manager Joe Maddon – hired by Epstein and Hoyer when he unexpectedly became a free agent prior to the 2015 season – posted the lineup for Game 6 Saturday, it included not just those two players who rose through the Cubs’ minor-league system, but seven players age 27 or younger. Rizzo, the first baseman, turned 27 in August. Baez is 23, Russell 22, third baseman Kris Bryant 24. Even right fielder Albert Almora Jr., who replaced struggling veteran Jason Heyward in Game 6, is 22.
“I remember looking at the lineup card today,” Hoyer said late Saturday night, “and thinking when you go Baez, Contreras, Russell, Almora at the bottom of the order, not to mention Rizzo and Bryant — that’s who we are. We’re a veteran team in some ways pitching-wise, but we’re a young offensive team, and we’re really athletic in the field.”
Epstein and Hoyer’s record in player development is exceptional. The young core of a Boston team that won the American League East this season – shortstop Xander Bogaerts and outfielders Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley, Jr., not to mention veteran second baseman Dustin Pedroia – is left over from Epstein’s time with the Red Sox. And if catcher-outfielder Kyle Schwarber returns from a knee injury to make the World Series roster, the Cubs’ first-round picks from the front office’s first three drafts – Almora in 2012, Bryant in 2013 and Schwarber in 2014 – could impact the postseason.
But the build also included deals. Three years in a row, the Cubs traded two veteran starting pitchers from their rotation. In their first offseason on the job, Epstein and Hoyer sent Sean Marshall to Cincinnati and got Travis Wood, then traded Andrew Cashner to San Diego for Rizzo. In subsequent seasons, they sent Ryan Dempster to Texas, and in return got Kyle Hendricks, who pitched 7-1/3 innings of two-hit ball in the Game 6 victory. They sent Matt Garza to Texas as well, and in return got relievers Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards Jr., who have both pitched in this postseason. And two summers ago, they dealt pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija to Oakland for Russell, then a minor-leaguer.
And when they felt like their potential playoff weakness was the back end of their bullpen, they had developed enough prospects that they could deal a package to the Yankees in exchange for Chapman.
Now, the players the Cubs imported are part of Chicago history – but also part of the future.
“I love this city,” Rizzo said on the field. “This feels like home.”
Because he got his first general manager’s job at 28, back with Boston prior to the 2003 season, Epstein has a reputation as a sabermetric disciple. But the fact of the matter is, during his formative years with the San Diego Padres, he spent time charting pitches behind home plate and scouting amateur players across southern California.
“The thing that impresses me the most is their willingness or ability to balance both the numbers and the person,” Maddon said Saturday. “It’s not just a numeric exercise. It’s not just a sabermetrical exercise. It’s also about the guy. Even when I talk to the boys [Epstein and Hoyer], you’re able to talk about makeup and character in a meaningful way.”
All of those elements came together in what the Cubs front office always envisioned as a five-year plan, with 2016 being the fifth year. Losing, early on, had to be part of it. The surprise, if there was one, was the run to a wild-card spot in 2015.
“We didn’t expect to win 97 games last year,” Epstein said. “… We had hoped to be very legitimate, competing at the highest levels, by ’16, the fifth year in.”
In October of the fifth year, a bouncing ball came to Russell, who flipped to Baez, who gunned to Rizzo. These are the Cubs, competing at the highest level in the fifth year of this plan, with no end in sight.