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Best of 2014: Major strides off the field

Jon Lester's arrival in Chicago is further proof the Cubs have become relevant again. David Banks/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Fortunately for the Chicago Cubs, the best moments of 2014 extend beyond the regular season as the final three months of the calendar year brought as much excitement as anything that happened on the diamond.

That's not to say there weren't some bright spots on the field, but just like last year, some of those great moments occurred in the minor leagues.

Maybe the best sign that the Cubs are moving in the right direction is the fact that it was a little harder to find the worst moments compared to a season ago, even though the team finished in last place again.

BEST MOMENTS

5. Kris Bryant wins minor league player of the year: This was essentially Javier Baez's spot in "best moments" last year, but Bryant outdid him with a monster season at both Double-A and Triple-A. He combined to hit .325 with 43 home runs and 110 RBIs to go along with a .438 on-base percentage. The Cubs believe his learning curve in the majors might not be as steep as others considering his maturity brought on from attending college, a hands-on dad with a hitting background and Bryant's ability to understand his swing better than most young players. It would not be a shock if Bryant won Rookie of the Year in 2015, even if he doesn't start the season in the majors.

4. Jeff Samardzija-Jason Hammel trade: As lopsided as it may have seemed to the casual fan --two stud major-league pitchers traded to the Oakland Athletics for a top prospect and two others -- the Cubs made out like bandits. It's simply not easy to acquire top prospects these days, but not only did the Cubs re-sign Hammel after the season, Samardzija lasted a half-year in Oakland and is more than likely headed to free agency next winter anyway. That's probably what would have happened if he stayed with the Cubs. And all you need know about shortstop prospect Addison Russell is at least one publication -- Baseball Prospectus -- has him ranked ahead of Bryant. Plus, the Cubs could still re-acquire Samardzija via free agency after 2015, which could make the original trade one of the best in decades.

3. Pitchers Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks emerge: Even if they don't live up to what they did in 2014, it doesn't take away from their success last season. But don't bet against either one of them. Arrieta has always been known as a pitcher with great stuff and it all came together for him as he flirted with no-hitters and perfect games seemingly every start after missing the first month because of a sore shoulder. His strikeout-to-walk ratio went from a pedestrian 1.46 in 2013 to a whopping 4.07 in 2014. That was by far the best in his career and the increase was the second best -- behind Phil Hughes -- among all starters from one year to the next, according to ESPN Stats and Information. And his walks per nine innings (2.4) was at its lowest. Hendricks used his know-how combined with his changeup to confuse hitters enough to produce a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts. The Cubs rightly thought Hendricks could be even better in the majors than the minors due to the mass of information they have on opponents compared to the lower levels. He's that good of a student. If neither player breaks out in 2014, the Cubs would really have holes to fill in their starting staff this offseason.

2. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo rebound: It was no sure-thing that both Castro and Rizzo would move their offensive games in the right direction after issues at the plate in 2013. Looking back, maybe there should have been fewer doubts. After all, Castro had already made two All-Star teams and had only one down season in his first four after breaking into baseball at 20. Rizzo's 2013 wasn't that bad as only his batting average suffered in his first full year in the majors. Both made adjustments. Castro went back to being himself after tinkering too much at the behest of his employers. Rizzo's work against left-handed pitching was a joy to watch. He hit .300 against lefties with eight home runs, and Castro amassed a career-high 14 home runs and a .292 batting average, though he missed the final weeks because of an ankle injury. Both were selected for the All-Star team.

1. Jon Lester signs: OK, we all know in about four to five years (or sooner), we may say this contract is awful and now the Cubs are stuck with a $20 million pitcher who isn't performing. It's what usually happens with these deals. That's when Lester might appear in the "worst moments" section. But for now his signing is both helpful to the Cubs on the field and to ownership off of it. No longer can the Cubs be called cheap. Combined with the signing of manager Joe Maddon, pitcher Jason Hammel, catcher David Ross and trading for catcher Miguel Montero -- while still paying former manager Rick Renteria -- the Cubs committed about $245 million this winter. A message has been sent: The Cubs are relevant again. Going up and coming out on top against the World Series champion San Francisco Giants, along with Lester's old team, the Boston Red Sox, for his services is further proof the Cubs' front office has the right message and money to attract good players.