Kris Bryant was smiling when he fielded the last out of the World Series, because of course he was. The Cubs, aside from their manager and the appealingly grave Professor, Kyle Hendricks, are not a team to keep a poker face, from Javy Baez’s flirtations with the camera in the dugout to Anthony Rizzo’s genial displays of affection in high-pressure situations. They’re a profoundly young team, and as Dave Cameron notes, “a historically great group of young hitters.” They play young; they play with joy.
As well-constructed as the team seemed to be at the beginning of the season—they were widely considered to be the best team in baseball before the season began and potentially an all-time great team, both of which turned out to be true—the unexpected development of the Cubs’ youngest players was crucial to the club’s accelerated emergence as a nascent dynasty. Addison Russell, already considered to be possibly the best defensive shortstop in the game when he was 21, tapped into his power, reduced his strikeout rate, and increased his walk rate in his sophomore season. Baez’s prodigious defense forced him into the starting lineup after beginning the season with the expectation that he’d be a super-sub. Willson Contreras was one of the team’s best hitters in a mere half-season debut. Even as they came into the year with such promise, they were still assembling the pieces in the midst of a historic season.
The trio was electric: Russell’s range, Baez’s quickness and guile, and Contreras’s gunslinging mentality behind the plate offered some of the playoffs’ most memorable moments. With youth comes risk, though. The trio combined to go 13 for 73 in the World Series; the notoriously impatient Baez, whose walk-to-strikeout ratio was the third-worst in baseball, struck out 13 times in 30 at-bats.
Even Joe Maddon, a calm presence in the dugout and a loose one in the locker room, seemed to be pressing as the Cubs neared their goal. In a postseason marked by bullpen drama, Maddon stunned even the most sabermetrically inclined observers by bringing in Aroldis Chapman in the seventh inning of Game 6 with a five-run lead and two runners on—a 96 percent chance of winning—after recording a career-high eight outs the game before.
When Chapman came in again to record the final four outs of the season, he was clearly diminished, only breaking 100 miles per hour once, after averaging 100.4 on the season. When he came out again for the bottom of the ninth, the pitcher brought in for his unprecedented fastball threw one hanging slider after another. Dave Cameron makes a compelling case that he threw three such pitches that could have ended the Cubs’ season.
In the 10th—extra innings in the 7th game of the World Series after a rain delay—the Cubs were saved by their depth and flexibility, by the structure of the team that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer built. Kyle Schwarber singled; with his injury, he was a prime candidate to be replaced by a pinch runner. That was Albert Almora.
This June, Eric Longenhagen wrote: “though not especially fast, Almora’s reads and routes in center field are exceptional… that the Cubs can call upon such a player as an injury replacement is a testament to their depth.” When Kris Bryant hit a deep flyball out to center field, Almora made a brilliant read and took second base, putting the winning run in scoring position.
Following a walk to Anthony Rizzo, soon-to-be World Series MVP Ben Zobrist drove in Almora with a double and sent Rizzo to third. Rizzo could have been the MVP: he actually slightly outhit Zobrist, with a .360/.484/.600 line to Zobrist’s .357/.419/.500. But Zobrist was a crucial final piece for the team that represented its strengths and filled its weaknesses, a patient hitter with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball, who played five different positions for the Cubs on the team with the most positional flexibility in the league.
Then Miguel Montero came to the plate, the Cubs’ third catcher of the game. Though Montero struggled as a hitter this year, he maintained a respectable .727 OPS against right-handed pitching, a better matchup than the right-handed David Ross, whom he replaced after Jon Lester came out of the game. Montero singled for what would turn out to be the winning run, giving the Cubs three RBI on the game from three different catchers.
To close out the game, Maddon brought in Carl Edwards Jr., a promising but not headlining piece of the Matt Garza trade that also brought Justin Grimm, a trade for depth rather than potential stars. As a midseason call-up, he earned Maddon’s trust over Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon, and could step in as closer next year, but Maddon pulled him after a walk and a single for Mike Montgomery. He was one of the team’s final pieces, acquired to fill the “glamorless” job of swingman, left-handed specialist, and general bullpen depth.
With the World Series-winning run on first base and two outs, Montgomery faced Michael Martinez. He’s also a depth piece, who’s played second, third, shortstop, and every outfield position in his six-year career—during which he’s hit .197. By wRC+, Martinez is the second-worst hitter in baseball over that stretch. “Michael Martinez is the rusty Swiss Army Knife you’ve had since Cub Scouts: He does everything and nothing, and the tweezers are missing,” as Baseball Prospectus described him. Cleveland actually designated Martinez for assignment in July, traded him for cash to the Boston Red Sox, then re-signed him off waivers in August. The reason? “Francona has been searching for a reliable jack-of-all-trades since,” the Plain-Dealer reported—exactly the kind of player the Cubs have excelled at acquiring and developing.
In the 10th inning of the 7th game of the World Series, Cleveland ran out of depth. Martinez hit a grounder so weak it made Kris Bryant smile.
Much has been made of what would become of the Cubs if they won the World Series, shedding their popular reputation as lovable losers. That’s simple: they’re lovable winners now, with a charismatic and gifted young core that’s barely into adulthood, much less established within the limits of its potential. Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber, Contreras, Russell, and Baez are the best and most fun array of young stars in baseball. Watching them play, in and of itself, is more compelling than any narrative.
But there are narratives, missing pieces, too. Can Jason Heyward repair his swing, or will his contract haunt the franchise when its young core reaches free agency? Will they seek to retain Aroldis Chapman after a disappointing postseason, the lingering shadow of his domestic-violence suspension, and what’s likely to be a steep price on the market? Can they replace the irreplaceable Zobrist if age quickly erodes the breadth of his skills?
The 2016 Cubs were one of the great baseball teams of all time, and some of their players could get even better in the next couple years. But they still just barely had enough pieces to outlast Cleveland. After years of drought, the franchise now has the potential to be a dynasty, if they can continue the delicate process of adding depth around their foundation.
They’re not losers anymore. They’re not cursed. They start writing a new narrative now. What more drama can you ask for?
1 year ago