Back in 2015, the Chicago Cubs were on the upswing, in Year Four of then-President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein’s master five-year plan. Their treasure trove of top prospects–from eventual Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant to the electric Javier Baez–were up in the big leagues and producing the way their scouting reports had promised. It felt as though the team arrived a year early, but those Cubs were ready to prove they belonged, walking into the trade deadline seven games over .500 at 54-47 (though still over 10 games behind the Cardinals for the division lead).
That Cubs team, much like this year’s, acted as “soft” buyers at the trade deadline, with their only real, notable move being a small trade to acquire Dan Haren from the Marlins to shore up the fifth spot in their rotation. Nevertheless, they went on to take the NL by storm, riding Jake Arrieta’s otherworldly second half to an easy victory over the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game. Then, of course, the Cubs announced their arrival to the upper echelon of contenders, finally slaying their bitter rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-1 in the 2015 NLDS.
Now, similar feelings have been evoked after the Cubs bought at the deadline, acquiring corner infielder Jeimer Candelario and relief pitcher José Cuas. Though their record is slightly worse than it was at this time eight years ago, they are actually in better position in both the division and Wild Card standings, thanks to a generally down year across the NL.
Certain differences distinguish this year’s team from that legendary 2015 squad. Most of the key contributors on offense this year are established veterans, rather than wildly-hyped prospects. Manager David Ross is still navigating the ins and outs of leading a clubhouse, whereas Joe Maddon was already an established, championship-caliber skipper. Finally, of course, the Cubs were led by Epstein, rather than his protege Jed Hoyer. Yet, there are myriad similarities, too, including the lefty-righty dual aces fronting the rotation (Jon Lester and Arrieta then, Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman now); a power-swinging lefty veteran leading the way in the lineup (Anthony Rizzo and Cody Bellinger); and a formerly anonymous relief pitcher turning himself into a dominant closer almost overnight (Héctor Rondón and Adbert Alzolay).
Judging by the difference in young talent leading the way back in 2015, it’s fair to say those Cubs were better positioned for sustained success than this year’s. However, the current Cubs have been careful to avoid the pitfalls that caused that meticulously-constructed roster to collapse. The farm system is deeper now than it was at any point during Epstein’s tenure, notably prioritizing homegrown pitching so as to avoid the prohibitively expensive contracts (or prospect costs in trades) that star pitchers generally demand. This team is also much better at crafting effective bullpens out of scraps, no doubt a lesson learned from the way Maddon abused Aroldis Chapman’s arm in that run to the 2016 title.
It remains to be seen what happens the rest of this year, but the deadline should be telling with regard to the Cubs’ strategy going forward: They are ready to win. Much like the three down years that began Epstein’s reign (seasons that featured some prolific trade deadline firesales), the last two years have weighed on Hoyer and Cubs fans alike. Whether the Cubs are truly all-in and target Shohei Ohtani, or whether they prefer to be a little more patient as top prospects Pete Crow-Armstrong, Cade Horton and others rise to the majors, is a mystery for the offseason. Plenty of people compared this winter’s Dansby Swanson signing to the Lester one back in the 2014-2015 offseason (an unofficial declaration that the Cubs were serious about ending their historic championship drought), and perhaps the front office felt the same way.
These Cubs, more plucky than electrifying, have long odds staring them down as they try to just make their way into the playoffs. For the first time in years, though, the excitement is palpable on the North Side. Though the teams are constructed differently, and the men in charge of captaining this ship to the promised land have been shifted around in the internal hierarchy, there’s a sense that these Cubs have finally emerged from Rebuild 2.0, eight years after the team that gave them the blueprint on how to go from “Lovable Losers” to World Series contenders.
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