Cubs poised to compete again in wake of offseason splurge
MESA, Ariz. — Could next year come this year for the Cubs? It isn’t impossible.
After taking a couple of years to rebuild the Wrigley Field area (and also the team), the Cubs may finally be ready to compete again.
The Cubs are as lovable as always — new imports Trey Mancini, Jameson Taillon and Eric Hosmer are among the nicest guys in the game. But more to the point, they finally got serious about something besides the stadium and the area, and did some real baseball work this winter.
The new look is obvious. After a year in which they finished surprisingly strong, but stayed a second-division club, and the generational “Wait ’til next year!” rallying cry was heard early, the Cubs made a major push this winter. Yes indeed, they spent some of their revenue — more than $280 million on seven veteran players.
After the previous winter, when they made some curious and (they hoped) cost-efficient signings, including the former Yankee and former Clint Frazier (who has changed his name to Jackson Frazier, but not his game), they brought in some real game-changers. The hopes to boost an overachieving 74-88 team are real. The new nucleus can’t rival the group that ended the curse seven years ago, but it’s a nice mix of experience and ability.
The two big acquisitions may turn out to be star shortstop Dansby Swanson, who improved his game to the point of elite and brings a history of winning, and Cody Bellinger, who’s hoping to become elite again. Bellinger is a former league MVP trying to regain that form or come close to it.
“He’s looked really good,” Taillon said of Bellinger. “He’s the first guy here every day. You see stuff on Twitter where it seems his head’s in the clouds. But this dude, he knows what’s going on.”
Bellinger is also healthy following shoulder surgery to repair serious damage from his forearm smash during the 2020 World Series with Dodgers teammate Kiké Hernandez. “Locked and loaded,” is how Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins put Bellinger’s current state.
The 2019 NL MVP, who had a 1.035 OPS that year, posted two straight seasons in which he was near the bottom of the NL statistically. But here’s a big plus: He also has two hitting coaches here from the Dodgers organization — Johnny Washington and Dustin Kelly. And his head is clearly in the game. (I couldn’t locate him to interview, as he was working — a good sign.)
Taillon came to the Cubs partly for the city and the history. But in a recent throwing session, he got a different view of his new team.
“I came away from the batting practice saying we might make a little bit of noise,” Taillon said. “I was super impressed. We’re going to grind out at-bats. We’ve got a little power. We’ve got a little speed. We can play defense.”
The last couple of years, most of the defense the Cubs played was to explain why the ultra-rich team had spent so little. There was no way to do that again, not with fans clamoring for a turnaround, and the team showing signs of hope late.
There aren’t a ton of top prospects on the cusp of the major league level. So the winter pickups were huge, and absolutely necessary. They have many candidates for the rotation, but only three certainties — Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele and Taillon.
They have a lot more questions, too: Will Nico Horner look as good at second base as he did at shortstop (that one’s a yes)? Can Ian Happ repeat his performance of a year ago? Have they adequately replaced Willson Contreras behind the plate? And of course, the big one might regard Bellinger.
To the surprise of most, the Cubs actually played better than .500 over the final two months of the 2022 season, showing a lot more effort than ownership had in recent years. Some saw it as a mirage, or maybe even a miracle. Either way, they showed great effort under their outstanding youngish manager David Ross.
Mancini came because the Cubs were the team most interested (and it didn’t hurt he played in college at nearby Notre Dame). But he wanted to join the team. He said he noticed the effort. And now that he’s here, he sees the positive vibe — a seeming Cubs staple.
“We are all getting along fantastically,” he said. “That matters. I noticed that in Houston.”
Of course, the champion Astros are an uber-talented team top to bottom. The Cubs aren’t quite there yet.
On paper, they look like less than the favorite in the NL Central, where the Cardinals and Brewers have ruled in recent years and are again seen as the top teams.
“I feel like we have the players to get us into position to make us relevant within the division,” Hawkins said. “Realistically, we’re not we’re not the favorites in the division and we’re going to have to surprise some people.”
There’s a great energy in Cubs camp, which is the way it should be. There’s much more talent, too. But even with the additions, the question remains: Is there enough?