On November 2, 2016, America could say something they hadn’t been able to in over 100 years: the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series. Four hours and twenty-eight grueling minutes on ten inning baseball later, the Cubs had beaten the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in what could possibly be the greatest game seven in all of sports history. The last time they won the World Series was in 1908, and the time they even went was in 1945, so I think making it was a pretty big feat in itself. 2106 was the year of the Cubs, owning the best record in Major League Baseball with 103-58 and a win percentage of .640. According to mlb.com, the Cubs 17.5 games ahead of the Cardinals, who were second in the division, and were 35.5 games head of the Cincinnati Reds, who were last in the division.
The key to the Cubs’ success wasn’t rain delays or timely hits (although they were pretty important), it was the work of one man: Theo Epstein, the President of Baseball Operations. To see where his work began, we have to go all the way back to October 11, 2011, the day the Cubs signed Epstein to a 5-year, 18.5 million dollar contract. He began right away, acquiring free agents David DeJesus, Reed Johnson, and Manny Corpas. He also drafted Lendy Castillo in the Rule 5 Draft and he traded Tyler Calvin and DJ LeMahieu to the Rockies for Ian Stewart. His second trade was sending Sean Marshall to the Reds for Dave Sappelt, Ronald Torreyes, and Travis Wood all before 2012.
On January 4, 2012, Epstein traded minor leaguer Kyung-Min Na and pitcher Andrew Cashner to the San Diego Padres in exchange for minor leaguer Zach Cates and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. That trade came up big for the Cubs, as Rizzo hit .292 with an OPS of .929 and knocked 32 home runs in the 2016 season. Rizzo is also one the best first basemen in the league with a near perfect fielding percentage of .996 and 11 DRS, the top among all first basemen in the National League. On June 4, 2012, the Cubs drafted outfielder Albert Almora Jr. Epstein also traded Ryan Dempster to the Rangers for (who would become the 2016 ERA leading pitcher and Cy Young contender) Kyle Hendricks and a minor league player, in what would become one of the worst trades in MLB history.
The best possible draft pick for the Cubs in 2013 was strong second overall selection of Kris Bryant, the reigning MVP of the National League. Bryant produced in 2016, hitting .292 with an OPS of .939 and 39 home runs. Bryant led the team with a 7.7 WAR. He also produced on defense, playing all three outfield positions with the addition of first base and shortstop to his resume. Although his defensive capability is impressive, I’m looking at his ability to play third base, the hot corner. With a fielding percentage of .953 and 4 DRS, you could argue Kris Bryant is one of the top third basmen in the big leagues.
Theo Epstein traded two players to the Baltimore Orioles for ace pitcher Jake Arrieta, reliever Pedro Strop, and cash. Arrieta wasn’t performing well for the Orioles, but they made what is considered one of the worst trades in all of baseball history. In 2016, Arrieta had an ERA of 3.10, 190 strikeouts, and a WHIP of 1.08. With a Cy Young award and two no-hitters under his belt, Arrieta is a major asset for the Cubs. Epstein also acquired pitchers Justin Grimm and Carl Edwards Jr. from the Rangers, adding to the growing pitching staff.
It wasn’t until 2014 when the next pieces of the puzzle were added. Free agents outfielder Chris Coghlan (who would later be traded to the Athletics and traded back) and pitcher Jason Hammel signed with the Cubs. Outfielder/catcher and powerhouse Kyle Schwarber was drafted next. On July 5, Jason Hammel, who would return later that year as a free agent, was traded along with another player to the Oakland Athletics for shortstop Addison Russell, a minor leaguer, and cash. On December 15, they signed free agent pitcher Jon Lester. Lester was a major key to success for the Cubs. In 2016 Lester had an impressive ERA of 2.44, a team leading 197 strikeouts, and a WHIP of 1.02. He also led the pitching staff with 19 wins and a WAR of 5.3. The Cubs also signed free agent catcher David Ross, who was the only one to catch Jon Lester except for rare occasions such as Ross was pinch hit or run for.
The first transaction of 2015 was a trade for center fielder Dexter Fowler. As the lead-off hitter, Fowler earned the saying “you go, we go” with a BA of .276, 13 home runs, and an OPS of .840. After Fowler, Trevor Cahill signed on as a free agent. December 8, was a big day for the Cubs, signing two free agents. Pitcher John Lackey, and utility player Ben Zobrist. Zobrist lived up to the hype, hitting .272, blasting 18 home runs with a .832 OPS. The next big free agent was Gold Glove right fielder Jason Heyward, signing an 8-year, 184 million dollar contract with a 20 million dollar signing bonus. Heyward didn’t exactly perform well at the plate, but he made up for it with his defense, winning his third consecutive Gold Glove.
The biggest trade in 2016 came on July 25, sending three minor leaguers and Adam Warren to the New York Yankees in exchange for closer Aroldis Chapman. Chapman threw his fastball the most, which averages over a hundred miles per hour. He also holds the record for fastest pitch ever recorded at 105.1mph. The Cubs came up big with the “Cuban Missile”, who put up an ERA of 1.01 and 16 saves since he first pitched for Chicago.
We have Theo Epstein to thank for most of the 2016 roster, but Jim Hendry is responsible for Javier Baez, Wilson Contreras, and Matt Szczur. It took Epstein 140 players, 37 trades, 74 free agent signings, two Rule 5 draftees, three draft picks, and 85 departures to assemble the World Series roster. Once the player signs the dotted line there is nothing anyone can do until the trade deadline or the expiration of the contract, which leads me to the all important Game Seven.
Game Seven, the win-or-die-trying game. The Indians had ironically blown a three to one lead in the series, allowing the Cubs to force a game seven, much the Cleveland Cavaliers had done in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. It was the worst possible thing for Cleveland and all it’s people. Chicago had the momentum, winning two elimination games in a row. It was Cleveland’s turn to feel the pressure of what the Cubs could do. Win on their field.
Corey Kluber had the ball for the Indians. He had single-handedly shut down the Cubs in two previous games and was hoping for a third. Lead off man, Dexter Fowler, said no to that idea when he sent a 2-1 two-seamer screaming over the wall in center field. Every fan watching knew Kluber didn’t have it, his two-seamers that had been eating Cubs batters alive wasn’t anything more than another pitch. Next up was Kyle Schwarber, who had returned from a torn ACL and LCL in April after colliding with Fowler in left center field. Schwarber beat out a dinky ground ball that was barehanded by shortstop, Francisco Lindor, for an infield single. The next three batters all flew out, ending the top of the first inning.
Kyle Hendricks, “The Professor”, had the ball for the Cubs. Going into the postseason, Hendricks put up the lowest ERA of starting pitchers in all of baseball with 2.13. He ended the inning in four batters, retaining the one run lead Fowler had given them. They kept that lead until the bottom of the third when Coco Crisp doubled then advanced on a Roberto Perez sacrifice bunt to Anthony Rizzo at first base. Carlos Santana lined a single to right fielder, Jason Heyward, allowing Crisp to score, tying the game at one.
In the fourth, Kris Bryant got things started with a lead off single to left field. Kluber hit Rizzo in the back on an 0-2 count. Rizzo was thrown out at second on a ground ball to first baseman, Mike Napoli, while Zobrist reached safely. Next, Addison Russell hit a sac fly to center field, allowing Bryant to score and Zobrist to advance. Catcher Wilson Contreras lined a double off the center field wall, scoring Zobrist, making the score 3-1 Chicago. Keeping the lead, Hendricks faced the minimum.
To lead off the fifth second baseman Javier Baez homered on the first pitch he saw. Indians manager, Terry Francona, pulled Corey Kluber and put in top flight reliever, Andrew Miller, who posted a 1.45 ERA during the regular season. Although Fowler singled then Schwarber grounded into a double play, Miller walked Kris Bryant on nine pitches. Anthony Rizzo singled to right field allowing Bryant to score from first.
After a groundout, a strikeout, and a walk, Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon, pulled Hendricks and Contreras to replace them with Jon Lester and David Ross. You can argue that it wasn’t a smart decision based on the fact that later that inning Lester allowed two runs to score on a wild pitch. However, David Ross homered for the final hit of his career the next inning.
There was no change in the 6-3 score until the eighth inning when Jose Ramirez scored on a Brandon Guyer double. Rajai Davis then hit a two-run homer off the camera in left field to tie the game. I would say it was impressive if I wasn’t a Cubs fan. No one could regain the lead, forcing the game into extra innings. Whether is was the work of God, Mother Nature, or Ernie Banks watching from above, there was a seventeen minute rain delay before the tenth inning could commence.
Jason Heyward called a players-only meeting in the weight room. The public doesn’t know exactly what was said, but he told mlb.com after the fact a general statement he made. “I told them I love them. I told them I’m proud of the way they overcame everything together. I told them everyone has to look in the mirror, and know everyone contributed to this season and to where we are at this point. I said, ‘I don’t know how it’s going to happen, how we’re going to do it, but let’s go out and try to get a W.'” Kris Bryant later added, “It was the best thing for us. We all got together in the weight room, we all supported each other. [Aroldis] Chapman was a little upset. That guy works his butt off. Jason Heyward led the way, talking us up, getting us ready, and you saw what we did there.”
Seventeen minutes was all it took for the Cubs to gain momentum. Kyle Schwarber led off with a single and was replaced by pinch runner, Albert Almora. Kris Bryant flied out, allowing Almora to tag and advance to second on a heads up baserunning play. Bryan Shaw intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo then Ben Zobrist doubled, scoring Almora and moving Rizzo to third. Shaw intentionally walked Addison Russell to bring up back-up catcher Miguel Montero, who only had one hit all postseason, but it just happened to be a grand slam. Once again, Montero came up clutch with a single, scoring Rizzo, giving the Cubs an 8-6 lead.
The Indians were only able to score one run in the bottom of the tenth, giving Mike Montgomery his first save as the setup man. The Cubs had come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the most sought after trophy in baseball. With a 103-win season, the Cubs could keep their title of the best team in baseball.
Theo Epstein assembled the team in five years, he gave them the best chance to win and the team took the opportunity and ran with it, bringing a championship back to Chicago and destroying the curse. This time there was no billy goat, black cat, or a Steve Bartman; it was just pure talent and determination that allowed the team to fly the W with pride and hoist the World Series trophy high for the nation, even the world to see. Fans could finally say this season wasn’t a disappointment. People had waited 71 years to see the Cubs in the World Series and some can die saying they finally saw the Cubs as World Champions. As a young fan of baseball, I can say that 11:36 p.m. central time on Tuesday, November 2, 2016, was, in fact, the most exciting moment of my young sixteen year-old life.