By Randy Richardson
You can’t replace David Ross and Dexter Fowler.
Ross, the veteran catcher nicknamed “Grandpa”, retired after the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years.
Fowler, the centerfielder and leadoff hitter, signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal in the offseason to play for the archrival Cardinals.
The two became the team’s inspirational leaders throughout the 2016 championship season. Ross, the grandfather figure for the talented, young core of players. Fowler, the offensive sparkplug at the top of the order for whom the team’s rallying cry became “You go, we go.”
Going into the 2016 season, the Cubs had a lot of youthful star power – Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez. But it would have been hard to imagine them accomplishing what they did without the leadership roles played by the two veterans Ross and Fowler.
You can’t replace that kind of leadership.
But you can bring in the kind of new players that can get you back to where you want to be at the end of the season.
Winning back-to-back World Series titles is no easy feat. No team in baseball has done it since the New York Yankees celebrated three straight titles from 1998 through 2000. The days of dominant, storied baseball franchises, like the Bronx Bombers and the Big Red Machine, are largely a thing of the past.
The reality is that it is harder than ever to win a World Series championship because of the expanded postseason field of teams competing for the title and the increasing difficulty of keeping the core players that make a great team.
The Cubs, with such a young core of talent, seem uniquely positioned to do just that. It’s easy to see how Bryant and Rizzo could be the next Ruth and Gehrig or Mantle and Maris.
But beyond that core you need a strong supporting cast, and you need leadership. The Cubs’ model has been to bring in players that aren’t just defined by their statistics, but are proven winners, both on and off the field.
The Cubs didn’t make any blockbuster free agent signings or trades this offseason because they didn’t need to. They just needed to tweak things a bit, because the core was already there. Mostly what they needed was veteran leadership to make up for the departures of Ross and Fowler.
The biggest deal in the offseason was trading young outfielder Jorge Soler, who has shown promise at times but too often has been sidetracked by injuries and sluggish play on the field, to the Royals for veteran closer Wade Davis. The 31-year-old righty takes over the role that Aroldis Chapman held the second half of the 2016 season, after the Cuban fire-baller signed a five-year deal with the Yankees in the offseason.
Davis, a two-time All-Star, was a member of the Royals’ 2015 World Series-winning team, and earned the Babe Ruth Award for his performance in the 2015 MLB postseason. Davis and his wife, Katelyn, run a non-profit organization, Full Kount, which benefits children age 18 and younger who use sports as a positive influence in their lives.
The Cubs bolstered their bullpen further with the free-agent signing of Koji Uehara, who won the 2013 ALCS MVP Award, and closed the final game of the 2013 World Series. The 41-year-old righty’s career spans 18 years – 10 in Japan and eight in the MLB. He participated in two Olympics and helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic title in 2006.
The Cubs also added veteran outfield depth with the free-agent signing of Jon Jay, who is expected to platoon in center with young Albert Almora. Jay, 31, was the starting center fielder for four consecutive National League Championship Series-qualifying clubs as a Cardinal (2011−14) and a World Series champion in 2011 when the Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers. Outside of baseball, Jay often returns to his hometown of Miami to hold various charity events, including the annual Jon Jay’s Celebrity Bowling Challenge. He’s also actively involved in supporting various homeless centers throughout the Miami metropolitan area.
It is easy to see the common thread that runs through the Cubs’ key offseason acquisitions. Character clearly matters to the architects of this team. They knew they’d never be able to replace Ross and Fowler. But in Davis, Uehara and Jay, they got players cut from the same cloth. The kind of players that lead by example. The kind of players that can lead them back to the top of that baseball mountain.
In the coming weeks leading up to Opening Day of the 2017 season, Wrigleyville Nation will introduce you to the newest Cubs with in-depth profiles of Davis, Uehara and Jay, looking at the roles they likely will play and what can be expected of them.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation