By Matt Williams
The Chicago Cubs’ social media mantra during the 2015 season was #WeAreGood. That’s probably a bit of an understatement these days.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer went into last week’s winter meetings in Nashville on a mission to improve a team that had already won 97 games last season.
Improve they did. The front office boosted the team’s defense, offense and pitching depth, all while pillaging their division rival’s roster of two of its top players.
These aren’t your lovable losers anymore, a team that lost 101, 86 and 89 games from 2012-14. These Cubs will bash your brains in with towering home runs with big youthful smiles on their faces.
“It’s totally different now,” Hoyer told MLB.com of the Cubs’ approach this offseason. “Then, we were trying to be opportunistic. What things can we do to position ourselves for the future? We were pretty open with some free agents that you might sign here, and you might get traded.
“Now it’s much more about rounding out the team and doing things to win.”
The Cubs started their winter spending spree with a two-year $32-million agreement with John Lackey, who started and won Game 1 of the NLDS for St. Louis against the Cubs. After signing 2B Ben Zobrist away from the World Series champion Royals, they traded away much-maligned 2B/SS Starlin Castro to the Yankees for P Adam Warren.
That’s a successful offseason on its own. But Epstein and Hoyer weren’t done raiding the Cardinals’ cupboard. They capped the week by stealing away OF Jason Heyward with a whopping 8-year, $184 million offer.
Adding Heyward to a lineup with National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant and MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs have three position players who ranked in the top 10 in WAR in the NL for the 2015 season. That’s before even mentioning Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler. National League pitchers are already having nightmares.
Some argue the Cubs overspent for a player like Heyward, but his value can go easily unnoticed. Heyward is not your typical $184 million man, combining for just 38 home runs the past three years between the Cardinals and Atlanta Braves. Comparatively, free agent first baseman Chris Davis had 47 HRs in 2015 alone.
Yet Heyward was the prize of this free agent class of hitters. He plays Gold Glove defense, runs the bases well and will get on base repeatedly for RBI machines like Rizzo, Bryant and Schwarber. Did I mention he is 26, a day younger than Rizzo?
Epstein and Hoyer got the player they coveted during the prime of his career. Heyward’s addition immediately makes the Cubs a World Series favorite, if they already weren’t before.
“You walk into a three-game series,” manager Joe Maddon told the media this week, “and the other team calls for your pitching, and you say: ‘It’s going to be Lester, Arrieta and Lackey.’ They don’t like that.”
And there are still moves to be made, with many expecting Soler and catcher Miguel Montero to still be targets for other clubs this offseason. While both are dependable assets they are both expendable, Soler down to the Cubs’ want to see Javier Baez on the field somewhere (anywhere); Montero due to his $14 million a year price tag. Suitors will be there but if Hoyer can find the right deal.
Of course,World Series titles are not won in December. The Cardinals will still make moves this winter, and Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates aren’t going anywhere. The Giants and D-Backs have both been working hard to make the NL West a three-horse race on par with the Central. But it’s hard for a fan base that is always waiting until next year not to be a little excited.
“We’re much more focused on the short term than we were,” Hoyer said. “You’re always thinking about the future – the future is going to come, and if you don’t prepare for it, you’ll really regret it. At the same time, we know we have a good team. We proved it last year. we have a great manager, great players.
“Our now is very bright, so I think we have to take advantage of that. That balance is different now than it was. As that balance shifts, I do think it creates more urgency.”
The Cubs will need a new slogan for 2016. #WeAreGood might not be enough for this team. #BetterThanGood, #SeekandDestroy? Maybe #NextYearIsNow.