The North Siders are back and better than ever.
After three long seasons of losing, managerial relapses along with frustrating twists and turns, the Chicago Cubs are stealing the show and making Major League Baseball take notice.
Free agent Jon Lester has agreed to sign a six-year $155 million contract to pitch for the Cubs in 2015. The deal comes after two days of speculation and anticipation at the Winter Meetings in San Diego.
Along with re-signing veteran right-hander Jason Hammel earlier this week, Lester gives the Cubs great flexibility in the starting rotation along with emerging young starters Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks. The team also addressed their backstop issues, acquiring Miguel Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier today.
The Cubs turned their fortunes around early last year when they traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Athletics for prospects including top-A’s prospect Addison Russell . In a move that I openly panned on this blog, the Cubs shed themselves of a huge question mark in Samardzija after talks of a possible contract extension stalled. The move has proved to pay off greatly for the Cubs. Meanwhile the A’s have now lost Lester, Hammel and Samardzija to the Cubs and White Sox respectively.
The Cubs’ climb back into the spotlight started back in 2011 when they hired then-general manager of the Boston Red Sox Theo Epstein to become the team’s President of Baseball Operations. Epstein poached away then-San Diego Padres GM Jed Hoyer to assume the same role in Chicago with the promise that the Cubs would rebuild from the bottom up to create a winning organization.
“We’re going to build the best baseball operation we can,” Epstein told reporters at his introductory press conference three years ago. “We’re going to change the culture. Our players are going to change the culture along with us in the major league clubhouse. We’re going to make building a foundation for sustained success a priority. That will lead to playing October baseball more often than not.
“Once you get in in October there’s a legitimate chance to win the World Series.”
The optimism began to wear thin however, with the Cubs failing to reach a .500 record for three straight seasons under two first-time Major League managers. Young stars like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo (acquired via trade from the Padres in 2012) struggled to find consistency and the defense became more of an issue for the fledgling Cubs.
Fortunes finally began to turn around last season, with the re-emergence of Castro and Rizzo, along with the rise of prospects Javier Baez and Jorge Soler to the Major League ranks. Both youngsters’ hit home runs as their first career MLB hits and the team became exciting to watch once more. But perhaps the most exciting moment for the Cubs took place after the conclusion of the World Series.
In a move that shook the baseball world, Theo and Jed got the man they always wanted as their skipper, Joe Maddon. After the introductions and the calls for shots and beers, the buzz set in and never went away.
Now it is December, and already the Cubs are striving towards the end of the light.
It is almost New Year’s, meaning that Cubs fans everywhere are one step closer to the dreaded “next year.” 2015 is only days away, but this year already looks more promising than all of the previous years of the Epstein/Hoyer Era.
The team still has questions in their lineup as well as the need for a contact hitter who can get on base and avoid striking out. Lester, Hammel and Montero are not the final answers to the Cubs’ 107-year championship drought.
But the Cubs are more than a few steps closer than they have been for many years now.
Next year is coming, and there’s going to be one hell of a party in Wrigleyville.