When team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer took over the Cubs’ front office in October 2011, their first item of business had nothing to do with the on-field product.
|Organization Of The Year|
|1982 Oakland Athletics|
|1983 New York Mets|
|1984 New York Mets|
|1985 Milwaukee Brewers|
|1986 Milwaukee Brewers|
|1987 Milwaukee Brewers|
|1988 Montreal Expos|
|1989 Texas Rangers|
|1990 Montreal Expos|
|1991 Atlanta Braves|
|1992 Cleveland Indians|
|1993 Toronto Blue Jays|
|1994 Kansas City Royals|
|1995 New York Mets|
|1996 Atlanta Braves|
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|1998 New York Yankees|
|1999 Oakland Athletics|
|2000 Chicago White Sox|
|2001 Houston Astros|
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|2009 Philadelphia Phillies|
|2010 San Francisco Giants|
|2011 St. Louis Cardinals|
|2012 Cincinnati Reds|
|2013 St. Louis Cardinals|
|2014 Kansas City Royals|
|2015 Pittsburgh Pirates|
|2016 Chicago Cubs|
Every aspect of the Cubs baseball operations department, from the executives with corner offices at Wrigley Field to the scouts traversing the globe, was short-handed. Years of penny-pinching under Tribune Co. ownership had cut down the Cubs’ number of scouts to 10 on the pro side and 47 on the amateur and international sides combined, limiting the franchise’s ability to discover and evaluate talent, simply because they didn’t have the manpower.
This, before anything else, was what Epstein and Hoyer, financed by new owner Tom Ricketts and family, knew they needed to address for the Cubs to ever become championship-caliber.
“It was a big priority for us,” Hoyer said in November at the General Manager Meetings. “Everything—office staff, scouts, player development staff. Under Tribune they ran so lean, it was kind of on us to push the numbers up a little bit.”
Five years later, the front office overhaul was evident, with the Cubs’ results on the field a direct result. The Cubs had 26 people in their pro scouting department in 2016, more than double the amount from when Hoyer and Epstein took over. They also had 53 scouts on the amateur and international side, a modest but still notable increase.
The year-to-year increase in extra bodies allowed the Cubs to identify under-the-radar trade targets like Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, as well as make the accurate judgment Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell would be worth high prices in trades. It allowed them to nail Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora with the new regime’s first three first-round draft picks. It allowed them to correctly assess Jon Lester, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist would be worthwhile veteran signings, even at a steep cost.
The infrastructure Epstein, Hoyer and Co. put in place culminated in the Cubs winning 103 games this year, making their first World Series appearance since 1945 and, of course, winning their first World Series title since 1908. For that, the Cubs are the 2016 Baseball America Organization of the Year.
“It’s over-talked about, but every team has their own way of doing things, and we were trying to make the ‘Cubs way’ inclusive,” Hoyer said. “Have everybody have their opinions heard and have it be sort of an organic thing. I think that was a big part of it. We weren’t trying to dictate our own philosophy. We were trying to build a philosophy with the people here and I think that was effective.”
It was, naturally, a process. The Cubs suffered losing seasons their first three years under the Epstein-Hoyer regime, stockpiling prospects and top draft picks but little in the way of wins at the major league level.
But the final product proved worthy, winning 97 games and reaching the NLCS a year ago as many of those top prospects broke through to the majors and posting the best record in baseball this season. Even better, the franchise is positioned to sustain that success.
Fifteen of the 25 players on the Cubs World Series roster were age 28 or younger. Three of their five highest minor league affiliates made the playoffs, with multiple top prospects dotting their rosters.
What was built was something to last, something that Cubs fans could hold onto and love and devote themselves to without fear of disappointment for the long-term, an incredibly rare occurrence in the franchise’s sordid history.
“It probably is the most complete group (I’ve had), and it’s the youngest group, pretty much the youngest group,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Game Three of the World Series. “That’s the part that really blows me away. If you really take a moment to look out there…there’s a lot of young, inexperienced players. Beyond today, beyond these next couple days, that makes me think just check these guys out in a couple years.”
The signature moment of the organization’s top-to-bottom success came in the crucial moments of Game Seven of the World Series, when the homegrown kids properly identified by the increased number of scouts set the table for victory.
With the game tied 6-6 in the top of the 10th inning, it was Schwarber who started everything off with a leadoff single. It was Almora that pinch-ran for him and made the aggressive but crucial decision to tag up on a fly ball to center field and reach second base to get into scoring position with the winning run. The man who hit the towering fly deep to center that put Almora there was Bryant.
“All of those first-round picks contributed a lot in our postseason,” Hoyer said. “I think we were pretty fortunate that it happened. It was nice to see three of them at least contribute in that 10th inning.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
It took time, but the stocked up front office and evaluation staff led to a stocked up major league product, exactly the goal Epstein, Hoyer and Co. set out to achieve. With that, Chicago ended one of the longest championship droughts in professional sports, and brought joy back to an enormous fanbase that had not experienced it in a long time.
“It was like a heavyweight fight, man. Just blow for blow, everybody playing their heart out,” Zobrist said after Game Seven. “I can’t believe we’re finally standing, after 108 years, finally able to hoist the trophy.”
The cumulative effect of what the Cubs’ front office built went beyond just what transpired on the field.
As Frontier Airlines Flight No. 91291 touched down at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport the night before Game Three of the World Series, the first World Series game at Wrigley Field since 1945, the overwhelmingly red-and-blue clad passengers in the main cabin erupted into cheers. Before long, as the plane taxied toward its gate, the beloved anthem “Go Cubs Go” began being belted out in unison.
Many of the fans cheering and clapping and singing on the plane would not be attending any of the World Series games. They were simply flying to Chicago from all over the country to watch at the bars surrounding Wrigley Field.
More than eight hours before Game Three, at 9 a.m. on a Friday morning, beers were already being poured, the streets were swarmed and the mounted police on horses were already out.
“I guess one of the groups that makes video games could absolutely make a game out of going down Clark Street for the first game of the World Series, the potential of hitting pedestrians or not, running lights, stop signs,” Maddon chuckled before Game Three, after he was late to the stadium because the crowds of revelers had snarled traffic.
“I was even talking to the guys inside, the altruistic component of all of this. Beyond everything, the game tonight, of course Cubs, we want to win, absolutely. But how about the excitement throughout the industry, throughout the game, and throughout our city? Everybody being engaged in this moment, it’s good. It’s a good moment for everybody. So that’s not lost on me either. When you’re driving down that street today and you see the involvement, you see, I mean I was hearing about the prices just to get into these places and then what you get for it, and the fact that people are flying in just to be at a bar, not even be at the ballpark, that is pretty impressive. So the whole moment I think is spectacular is the best way I could describe it.”
The players, meanwhile, felt that energy, and embraced it.
“It’s a little magnified, I’m sure, with the history and the time has been since there’s been World Series games here,” Lackey, a veteran of 17 previous postseason series, said before Game Three. “Just driving into the ballpark, trying to get to the players’ parking lot is an experience. There’s a lot of people out there. It’s really cool.”
Of course, it ended with a reported five million celebrating the Cubs’ World Series title along the parade route through Chicago.
That was what Epstein, Hoyer, and the rest of the organization built. Not just wins and titles, but passion and joy for an entire city.