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How the Cubs built their elite infield

Ben Zobrist, left, and Kris Bryant are part of a deep, talented Cubs infield that is strong at the plate and defensively. Getty Images

Good scouting, some timely trades and a little luck have led to the Chicago Cubs employing the infield that ESPN's Buster Olney ranks No. 1 in baseballInsider heading into the 2016 season.

Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant have so much going for them that it’s hard to know from week-to-week who's most valuable in that group. Add free-agent addition Ben Zobrist and former first-round pick Javier Baez and there is little in the form of weakness at the plate or on defense for Cubs' top five players in the infield.

Rizzo is the longest-tenured member of Chicago's elite infield, making his debut with the Cubs in 2012. So how did the Cubs remake their infield into baseball's best?

It began with a bold trade in 2012 to acquire Rizzo, who general manager Jed Hoyer worked with both in Boston than in San Diego. The Cubs traded a top pitching prospect in Andrew Cashner to get Rizzo, and the deal has already paid off as he has finished 10th and fourth in MVP voting over the last two seasons.

The next move came in the summer of 2013 when the Cubs drafted Bryant to play third base. This is when timing and luck benefited them as the team’s rebuilding plans sent it to the bottom of the standings the previous year. It meant drafting No. 2 that June, and when the Houston Astros chose right-handed pitcher Mark Appel -- he has since been traded -- the Cubs jumped on Bryant, who won the Golden Spikes award as best amateur player that year. Bryant won Rookie of the Year in 2015 and should be a fixture in the Cubs' lineup for years to come. So losing big and another team’s decision led to Bryant’s arrival in Chicago.

Shortstop Russell wasn’t on the Cubs radar until Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane came calling for some pitching in the summer of 2014. The Cubs had already passed on Russell in the draft a few years earlier, but were starting to regret that decision with Russell developing into a top prospect as he began his minor league career. The Cubs righted that wrong in one of the most lopsided trades in recent history, simply because the players they moved -- Jeff Samardizja and Jason Hammel -- were close to becoming free agents anyway. Once again the Cubs didn’t hesitate about losing more games in the present to acquire Russell. They sacrificed two-fifths of their starting rotation to get him, and now he’s a mainstay up the middle at just 21 years old.

The final starting piece came just a few weeks ago when the Cubs acquired the versatile Zobrist. His defense might not be as sharp as it used to be, but his ability to put the ball in play combined with championship-caliber experience will be a big lift to an otherwise young infield that strikes out a lot. And when manager Joe Maddon needs a defensive replacement at second or wants to give a breather to his other starters, Baez is waiting in the wings. He was a first-round pick in 2011, giving the Cubs three No.1’s among the five infielders. It’s a talented and deep group.