Free agency brilliance led Cubs to Series title

By James Fegan 

As has already been the case for years – and will only accelerate now that these Cubs are not only the biggest success story of the moment but in the history of the franchise – the triumph of the 2016 Cubs will be held up as a victory and endorsement of the model of full-blown tearing down and rebuilding rosters from the ground up.

And it is! The Cubs wrapped up a title by having their draft-and-developed MVP-quality third baseman throw a ball to the cornerstone first baseman whom trading for was among Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s first moves. Their lineup was powered by players in their early-20s and they will remain contenders for years to come because of the core they built.

But you don’t need to look much farther than Ben Zobrist’s World Series MVP trophy to see how the Cubs turned a promising core into a champion by investing successfully in free agency.

After all, it was Lester, the veteran pitcher with nine-straight seasons of over 30 starts on his resume, and a spur in his elbow, who came in just two days removed from his last outing to throw three overpowering innings in Game 7. Only an infield single and fluke wild pitch even cast the illusion of crisis, and Lester, exactly the unshakable ace the Cubs pegged him as when they gave him $155 million to switch their franchise from a promising rebuild to a contender, immediately stomped out the flickering flames and delivered a three-run lead to Aroldis Chapman.

Signaling that switch is part of how they landed Zobrist in the first place, a fantastically complete player with skills so varied that he projected well to stay useful past age 35, so versatile that he filled in wherever the team needed help, and with an approach so measured he never stopped raking even as the young Cubs pressed in the early games of the series. He batted behind Rizzo, so in that respect it made sense that the Indians intentionally walked the Cubs cleanup man to face Zobrist in the decisive 10th inning, but shuffling between those two is a loss in and of itself by design. With the speed Almora Jr. on second, the Indians really needed a strikeout, and got two guys who do it less than once per game.

John Lackey wasn’t quite himself down the stretch or in the postseason. While he and the 188.1 innings of 120 ERA+ ball he twirled in 2016 belong alongside Lester in the story of the Cubs recognizing their great rebuild didn’t fill them with rotation depth, and finding the right veterans to push them over the hump, the World Series didn’t wrap the perfect bow on his tale, though he’ll flaunt a well-earned ring all the same.

What it did offer is a moment of redemption for the Cubs’ only free agent blunder, Jason Heyward. Only just now 27 years-old and a super-athletic all-around contributor, Heyward was supposed to immune to the phenomenon of 30-something mashers getting big deals after their last big season before their skills and conditioning tanked. Heyward simply couldn’t hide his broken swing, even while he threw his body around on defense and sprinted around the bases, but he’ll be remembered for something rarely associated with expensive newcomers: he led.

The nice thing about championships is that one pep talk in the middle of a 10th inning rain delay can be remembered longer than an entire season of offensive putridity, and the nice thing about championship cores is that the veterans they attract to be a part of the team tend to buy in, and never have a moment to forget what they came here to do.

Many teams will and already are aping the incredible reshaping job the Cubs pulled in nailing their top draft picks, and stocking their farm system in trades, but the most difficult task for other GMs to replicate might be filling out their core with the right free agents, and of course, convincing their owner to spend what’s necessary to do it.

James is the Editor-in-Chief of BP South Side, Baseball Prospectus’ blog covering the White Sox, who did not win the World Series this year. Follow him on Twitter: @JRFegan.

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