The 2014 offseason showed how serious the Chicago Cubs were about turning the corner, as the front office put the league on notice via free agency.
Ahead of the 2015 campaign, veteran left-hander Jon Lester signed a six-year deal, worth $155 million. The gritty lefty may go down as the best free agent signing in Chicago sports history. But the Chicago Cubs did more than just add an ace. They also made one of the more underrated moves of that offseason, acquiring outfielder Dexter Fowler.
The Houston Astros traded Fowler to Chicago in exchange for Luis Valbuena and Dan Straily. Fowler set the table for this lineup, which featured the additions of rookies Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber later in the season, making for a pretty deadly 1 through 8 in the batting order.
Chicago’s front office inked backup catcher David Ross to a two-year deal worth $5 million, slotting in behind the newly-acquired Miguel Montero. Montero came over in a trade with Arizona for Zack Godley and Jeferson Mejia.
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Montero is the owner of one of the most iconic moments in Cubs’ history, but that’s another story for a later day.
The 2015 season saw the Cubs power their way to 97 wins and a trip to the NLCS, where they were promptly swept by the New York Mets, just missing their first World Series appearance since 1945.
Lester’s first season in a Cub uniform was right around his career averages. He started all 32 games, posted a 3.34 ERA, pitched 205 innings, striking out 207 hitters, a record for any Cubs’ left-handed pitcher. His 2.92 FIP made the ERA look worse than it was.
Bryant slugged his way to NL Rookie of the Year honors, slashing .275/.369/.858, crushing 26 home runs, driving in 99 and earning an All-Star nod in his debut season. All this despite striking out nearly 200 times. His 2015 season saw him post a 136 wRC+ and four total DRS between the hot corner and the outfield.
The foundation was there, with everybody returning in 2016 and a few more additions, the stars seemed to finally be aligning for a franchise mired in a title drought pushing 108 years.
As for Schwarber, he posted a batting line of .246/.355/.487 for an OPS of .842. The former first-rounder slugged 16 dingers and recorded four hits in his first career start, a 17-0 win over the Cleveland Indians.
One of the most impressive things about this season is the Cubs didn’t have Javier Baez for most of the season. Baez was a September call-up after spending most of the season in the minor leagues and dealing with his sister’s passing. Like Baez has always done, though, he didn’t fail to make an impact. During the clinching game of the NLDS, he took it upon himself to decide where John Lackey and Jason Heyward would sign that winter.
In the postseason, the Cubs ended the Cardinals’ reign of terror over the National League, eliminating them in four games in the National League Division Series. Kyle Schwarber set the new Cubs’ record for postseason home runs by a Cub, including this moonshot in the series clincher. Jorge Soler smacked two home runs and hit .571 in that NLDS himself. The total slash line for Soler was .571/.769/1.571 for an OPS of 2.341(!). Schwarber’s line? .500/.583/1.100, OPS of 1.683. This team just outslugged opponents.
The pitching rotation was very consistent. Jake Arrieta won the National League Cy Young with a 1.77 ERA, with an ERA under 1.00 in the second half of the season, one of the best we’ve ever seen. Every starter had an ERA under 4.00, and no FIP was higher than 3.70. Talk about a model of consistency. Hector Rondon posted 30 saves and an ERA under 2.00. Justin Grimm had an ERA just under 2.00 – at 1.99, while Pedro Strop‘s ERA was under 3.00. The Cubs beat you in so many ways.
Addison Russell’s bat never really came around, but he did hit his first career home run before Bryant did, much to everybody’s surprise. The foundation was there and with everybody returning in 2016, excitement was at levels we hadn’t seen in years on the North Side of Chicago.