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The Cubs could take a lesson from the way the Brewers put together their 2018 team

The core of this year’s N.L. Central champions came via trade — and the draft.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers played better down the stretch than the Chicago Cubs did. Plain and simple, that’s the reason they won the N.L. Central this year, and the reason the Cubs are sitting home this October while the Brewers are in the NLCS.

Two of the most important players the Brewers have this year are center fielder Lorenzo Cain and closer Jeremy Jeffress. Both of these players were acquired by the Brewers within the last two seasons, Jeffress in mid-2017, Cain signed as a free agent prior to 2018.

But did you know that Cain and Jeffress were both originally Brewers draft picks, both made their major-league debuts with the team, and both were traded away — for players who are still paying dividends for the Brewers?

Cain was the Brewers’ 17th-round pick in 2004. (For reference, the Cubs took Jerry Blevins in that round.) He made his debut with the Brewers in 2010 and after that year, was traded to the Royals along with Jeffress (who was Milwaukee’s No. 1 pick, 16th overall, in 2006), Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi for Yuniesky Betancourt and Zack Greinke.

Greinke pitched in Milwaukee for a year and a half before he was traded to the Angels for Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena and Jean Segura.

After the 2015 season, Segura was traded to the Diamondbacks for Aaron Hill, Chase Anderson and a minor leaguer.

So the 2018 Brewers, for a 17th-round pick of Cain, got one of the key members of their rotation... and Cain, who they signed back as a free agent. Cain, who has 34 career bWAR, has to have had one of the best careers ever for a 17th-round pick.

Jeffress, after being included in that trade to the Royals, was re-signed by the Brewers in 2014, and in 2016 was shipped to the Rangers at the July 31 deadline (along with Jonathan Lucroy) for Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz and a PTBNL. One year later, also at the deadline, the Brewers got Jeffress back for a minor leaguer.

Brinson? Before this year he was sent, along with three minor leaguers, to the Marlins for Christian Yelich.

And that’s how the Brewers turned two draft picks from more than a decade ago into four key parts of their N.L. Central title team this year, without really giving up anything of value to them (other than Cain and Jeffress, who they got back). Greinke would have left Milwaukee as a free agent, so the Brewers got a pretty good return there, and got good value in the Segura trade.

Where’s the lesson here for the Cubs? Well, the Cubs do have many tradeable parts to offer around this offseason. Some of them will be players who were World Series heroes in 2016. To anyone who has a problem with trading any of those players for good value in return, my message is: Get over it! No championship team that wants to win more titles stays intact. If that means guys like Kyle Schwarber or Albert Almora Jr. wind up playing elsewhere, who cares if that brings back players who can help the Cubs win again?

There’s more than a little bit of luck, obviously, in the Brewers’ dealings. Jeffress struggled and had two suspensions for “a drug of abuse” before he was finally diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy in 2013 and got on proper medication. Yelich pretty much fell into the Brewers’ laps when the Marlins decided to salary dump over the winter — and you can make a pretty good argument that the Cubs could have had Yelich for Almora and a couple of prospects last offseason if they had chosen to.

Theo Epstein & Co. have usually been pretty good when it comes to identifying talent they have acquired by trade. Of the current 40-man roster, Theo & Co. traded for 13 of them, including excellent deals for Kyle Hendricks, Pedro Strop, Anthony Rizzo and Victor Caratini, among others.

In summary, then, I think it’s time for Cubs management to identify under-the-radar trade targets they could go after this offseason — and possibly even deal some of the bigger names on the current roster.