Since baseball’s origination, teams have had the task of crafting a winning roster. Many have tried and failed over the course of Major League history. After all, just one of thirty teams is crowned World Champs. Every winter, the twenty-nine other teams look for a formula to create the perfect squad of players. But does that formula exist? Is there a mold for building the perfect club?
Many will say that there is a formula out there. Teams need a workhorse at the front of the rotation, solid lefty and righty options in the bullpen, and a good mix of power, contact, and speed throughout the batting order.
It sounds easy in theory, but acquiring (and paying) for players that check all those boxes is down right impossible.
In the modern game, it’s rare to see a team dominate. Fortunately for us fans, we’re getting to witness something special this year, thanks to the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs have shown us that there cannot possibly be a formula for building the perfect team. They are the consensus pick for best team in baseball and likely as close to perfection as we’re going to see for a while. But the players responsible for their success this season have had such unique paths to Chicago that it would be difficult to model the formation of the Cubs roster.
Pitcher Jake Arrieta was sent to Chicago along with Pedro Strop in a 2013 trade with Baltimore. The Cubs capitalized on Scott Feldman’s stellar first half and reaped the benefits, which came in the form of an eventual Cy Young Award winner. While Feldman’s tenure in Baltimore was short, an organization swap kick-started Arrieta’s career. Prior to the trade to Chicago, Jake Arrieta hadn’t posted an ERA under 4.60 or a FIP under 4.00. He found his stride quickly once in Chicago, racking up a (then) career high in strikeouts to go with a 2.53 ERA during his first full year as a Cub.
His rise to prominence has been unprecedented, but a change of scenery appears to have been all he needed. Arrieta has openly discussed difficulty fitting in with the Orioles during the early stages of his career. Joe Maddon’s loose and easy-going clubhouse has welcomed him with open arms. He fits in perfectly with the guys Maddon has in Chicago, and that team chemistry is one of the reasons for the Cubs’ success.
If you’re building the perfect team, it would include a dominant front-end starter like Arrieta, but the chances of finding another pitcher like him in the way the Cubs did are slim to none. To acquire a player stashed away in another team’s farm system and turn him into one of the premier pitchers in the game is something of baseball folklore, a story that Hollywood writers would drool over. You can’t tell me that “acquire Triple-A pitcher and watch him win Cy Young” is anywhere in the GM’s notes for the future.
One other Cub with a fascinating story is Anthony Rizzo. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein is largely responsible for bringing the star first baseman to Chicago. During Epstein’s time as GM of the Boston Red Sox, the Sox selected Rizzo in the sixth round of the 2007 MLB Draft. Rizzo was eventually traded to the San Diego Padres, a team that at the time had Jed Hoyer in their front office. Once the duo of Epstein and Hoyer joined forces in Chicago, they got Rizzo back for the price of Andrew Cashner and a minor leaguer.
Rizzo has been one the largest contributors to the Cubs this season, earning a third consecutive All-Star appearance and swinging well enough to put him right on track for another thirty home run season. Plus, Rizzo is battling with teammate Kris Bryant for NL MVP honors.
Rizzo is a first baseman that any manager would love to write into his lineup. He’s a great clubhouse guy, he hits with runners on base, and for being a southpaw, he hits lefties surprisingly well. GMs, take notes – apparently building a winning a team starts with trading away, then trading back for your future first baseman.
Perhaps the most unorthodox aspect of the Cubs is their bullpen. LHP Travis Wood has made the most appearances out of the ‘pen this season after starting forty games from 2014-2015. Trevor Cahill has been effective in over fifty innings of work after a falling out in Arizona just a few years earlier. Many doubted Cahill would ever be able to pitch like the thirty million dollar man Oakland had invested in during the 2011 season. Sure enough, Cahill is flourishing in his new role as a full-time reliever, striking out almost ten hitters per nine innings.
Outside of the starters-turned-relievers, Chicago made it a priority this summer to acquire further bullpen help. Even though the late-inning combination of Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon was working well, the front office decided to beef up. And they sure did, trading for former Royals top draft pick Mike Montgomery and the ultimate fireballer, Aroldis Chapman. Montgomery has added depth as a left-hander and Chapman, well he’s done his thing in the ninth inning. He’s struck out twenty-eight in just 16.2 innings as a Cub.
As far as building the bullpen, apparently you need to convert a starter to a reliever, snag a former All-Star on the brink of baseball extinction, and trade for the fastest pitcher in baseball. Building the perfect team sounds simple enough, right…?
Back in the dugout, many fans overlook the importance of a handful of solid bench players. There are guys on each team that are valuable, despite not starting everyday. Enter Matt Szczur. He’s been the Cubs clutch performer off the bench. Szczur started the season going 10-29 off the pine. In back-to-back days during the month of July, Szczur drove in runs on pinch-hit singles. He will certainly be the top pinch-hitting option down the stretch for Chicago.
But baseball wasn’t Szczur’s only calling. He excelled at football during his time at Villanova. Szczur amassed over 5,000 all-purpose yards in his college football career and was part of the 2009 FCS Championship team. Chicago spent their fifth round pick on Szczur in 2010, but needed assurance that he wouldn’t bail for football. Szczur had to sign a commitment to baseball and decline an invite to the NFL Combine before finalizing his contract.
All signs seemed to be pointing Szczur down the path of football, but he wisely chose baseball, and that choice is paying off for him. Who would have thought that a guy who ran for seventeen touchdowns in college would be a go-to hitter for a World Series contender? Add “convince All-American running back to join the team” to that list of team-building tips.
Filling out a roster the way Chicago has is difficult to replicate. The front office transitions, managerial switch, and frequent trade negotiations (among other things) have all gone the Cubs’ way. I doubt we’ll see any other team in the near future have as much success in assembling a roster as this year’s Cubs.
The thing about building a team is that there is no secret. If there was a foolproof method, it would have been done by now. I suppose front office execs should scour the minor leagues for twenty-seven year old pitchers that are capable of winning the Cy Young. Maybe there’s another Arrieta out there somewhere…