In spite of losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates Friday afternoon, the Chicago Cubs clinched a playoff spot when the San Francisco Giants were eliminated from the postseason by losing to the Oakland A’s Friday night. This marks the Cubs first trip to the postseason since 2008. This is the culmination of the arduous rebuilding effort undertaken by Theo Epstein, who became the team’s president of baseball operations in October of 2011, who began stocking up the minor league system almost immediately, with many of those players having a hand in this year’s success.

The Cubs offensive leader this season is arguably All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who Epstein drafted as Boston general manager in 2006, traded to San Diego as part of the package for Adrian Gonzalez, then acquired in his first offseason with Chicago for pitcher Andrew Cashner. Rizzo is now the second left-handed hitter in team history to post multiple 20-home run seasons (the other being Billy Williams, who did it five times). Behind him, the Cubs have gotten major contributions from their rookies, with as many as four in the lineup at times.

The Cubs lead the major leagues in hits, runs, home runs and RBIs from rookies this season, with over 100 more RBIs from rookies than any other team. Kris Bryant, a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year, has set the Cubs franchise rookie record in both home runs (26) and RBIs (98) with nine games left to play. Bryant was Chicago’s first round draft pick in 2013, while their first round pick last season, Kyle Schwarber, has been a surprise contributor with 16 home runs and 43 RBIs this season. Other players Epstein brought in that have made their impact this season include Cuban signing Jorge Soler (in spite of an injury-riddled season), Addison Russell (who was acquired last season in the now infamous trade of Jeff Samardjiza and Jason Hammel), and Dexter Fowler, who was signed in the offseason to provide a presence at the top of the lineup and provide some veteran leadership.

The area of largest improvement for the Cubs this season has definitely been the starting rotation, where they took a large step forward in the offseason by committing a major contract to another Epstein import from Boston, Jon Lester. While he took some time before he made his mark, the surprise of the season has been the emergence of Jake Arrieta as a frontline starter, as he became the first 20-game winner in the majors’ this season, the fourth Cub to do so, and the first for the Cubs since Jon Lieber in 2001. He pitched a no-hitter against the Dodgers early in September, and is now the third Cubs pitcher since 1900 to have 20 wins and 200 strikeouts in a season, behind Ferguson Jenkins in 1967-71 and Orval Overall in 1909. Arrieta has a 0.86 ERA since the All-Star break, which is on pace to be the lowest in major league history. He was one of many unheralded moves made by Epstein, as he was acquired with bullpen-stalwart Pedro Strop in 2013 from the Orioles for Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger, and has gotten better every year since. He also brought back Hammel this offseason, after his inclusion in the aforementioned trade for Addison Russell.

The move that tied it all together and helped lead to the giant step forward this season was bringing in Joe Maddon as manager after his unexpected departure from Tampa Bay. Maddon’s time with the Rays earned him a reputation as being a cultivator and mentor to young talent, and he proved it once again this season, as he helped Rizzo take a leap in his development, along with nurturing the rookies Schwarber, Russell, and Bryant.

At 89-64, the Cubs have the disadvantage of being in what has become the toughest division in National League, as a record that would have them in first in any other division is only good enough for third behind the Pirates (94-60) and the Cardinals (97-57). They will likely have a tough task in facing the Pirates in Pittsburgh for the Wild Card game but regardless, this season has served as a notice to baseball that the Epstein’s rebuilding effort is over, and this season looks to be the first of many where the Cubs will be playing meaningful October baseball.

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