Jameson Taillona hyped prospect who had been drafted in between Bryce Harper other Manny Machadodistinctly remembered one of his first road trips as a rookie with the pirates in 2016. It was 72 degrees and sunny at the Friendly Confines on June 17 when the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner threw his first pitch — a 95 mph fastball — and began carving through Pittsburgh’s lineup. The crowd of 41,547 roared in approval as the cubs put together the kind of complete game that defined their first championship season in more than a century: dominant starting pitching, a patient and balanced offense, no errors on defense and three relievers combining to get the final nine outs in a 6-0 victory.
“It was a Friday day game with (Jake) Arrieta on the mound when he was untouchable,” Taillon recalled. “I remember just like taking a step back and feeling the environment. There’s nothing better than a day game at Wrigley in the summer. I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is the big leagues right here. This is The Show.’”
That is the ideal vision the Cubs present in personalized videos to recruit free agents and in nostalgic marketing campaigns to sell tickets. The reality is their major-league roster recently looked more like Triple-A Iowa than a contender for the third wild-card spot. The game day vibes at Clark and Addison felt more like spring training than October electricity. But players know that energy will snap back as soon as the Cubs give their fans some hope.
Taillon sensed it after consulting with former teammates/ex-Cubs such as Anthony Rizzo, Scott Effross other Trevor Williams to get insights before making his free-agent decision: “All the feedback I got was like, ‘Dude, if you have the opportunity to play there, you really have to take it.’”
In closing a four-year, $68 million deal with Taillon during the Winter Meetings — and then finalizing a seven-year, $177 million contract with Gold Glove shortstop Dansby Swanson over the weekend — the Cubs are taking measured steps toward constructing a more fundamentally sound team with a better sense of professionalism and increased odds to stay relevant through the summer.
Taillon didn’t know if Jed Hoyer’s front office would sign an All-Star shortstop when he reached an agreement with the Cubs — that happened in between the breaking news around Trea Turner (11 years, $300 million from the Phillies) and Xander Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million from the Padres) — but Taillon was told the team had more money to spend and ways to improve this offseason. Taillon, a cancer survivor who has recovered from two Tommy John surgeries, is known as a leader who works closely with other pitchers and sets a good example with his preparation. Swanson developed a similar reputation in Atlanta, showing the drive and the stamina to play 162 games in what became a fantastic platform season instead of a World Series hangover year.
“From everything I’ve heard, off the field, in the clubhouse, in the locker room, he’s going to make people better,” Taillon said of Swanson. “I’ve heard he holds people accountable. I’ve heard he really wants to win. I don’t think he would have picked Chicago if he wasn’t convinced that we could build a winner and get back to that level. I’m really excited to see what he’s all about. I’ve heard great things. I’ve heard he’s super competitive. He’s got an edge and a desire to win. So, yeah, playing (at Wrigley) in ’16, ’17, ’18, ’19 — there’s no place better when it’s rocking.”
Taillon — the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft who made 61 starts for the Yanks over the last two seasons — has seen both ends of the baseball spectrum in Pittsburgh and New York. Taillon, like Swanson, is represented by Excel Sports Management, which featured several clients on the 2016 Cubs, including Kyle SchwarberDexter Fowler and Jason Heyward. Kyle Hendricks is the only remaining active player from that World Series team, and the Cubs were prepared to make a significant investment in a mid-rotation pitcher like Taillon, in part, because they don’t know how many starts Hendricks will make next season. During Monday’s video conference with Chicago reporters, it was interesting to hear Taillon say Rizzo gave him a heads up that the Cubs were interested in him as a free agent.
“I guess he had heard from some of his Cubs sources,” Taillon said. “He said I would love it there, and if I ever had any questions, to run it by him. He had great things to say.”
Trading Rizzo to the Yankees the day before the 2021 deadline showed that Hoyer wouldn’t go halfway. Rizzo experienced a lot of mixed emotions about how it ended, excitement to go to New York, gratitude for his time in Chicago, frustrations over the lack of another contract extension and confusion about the franchise’s direction.
Almost exactly six years after Taillon felt that sense of awe at Wrigley Field — the atmosphere Rizzo helped create as the face of the last rebuild — the Cubs visited Yankee Stadium this past season and were outscored 28-5 during a three-game sweep (June 10-12) that showed how far the team still needed to go.
“The roster has changed,” Taillon said, pointing to the emergence of younger pitchers Justin Steele other Keegan Thompsonhopes for Hendricks and Marcus Stroman to stay healthy next season, and the addition of gold glove center fields Cody Bellinger to play behind the new double-play combination of Swanson and Nico Horner. “From the Cubs’ point of view, I think it’s a division that if you pour (resources) into the right guys and create the right roster, the division should be — I don’t want to say up for grabs — we have to go out there and prove it, but it’s a division that’s gettable. So I’m happy that they’re adding to it, and I think it’s a group that can make some noise.”
(Photo: Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)