MESA, Ariz. — This season’s Chicago Cubs ought to come packaged in a wax wrapper with a stale stick of bubble gum. No different crew can higher replicate one of many thrilling rites of spring: opening a brand new pack of baseball playing cards.
Hey, there’s a Dansby Swanson … wow, a Cody Bellinger … look, an Eric Hosmer and a Tucker Barnhart! And Trey Mancini, too?
“The spoils of riches,” the beginning pitcher Kyle Hendricks mentioned with a smile. “I feel like every time you opened social media this off-season, it seemed like we were getting another guy.”
Seven years after the best second in membership historical past, the Cubs’ 2016 World Collection championship, Hendricks is the final remaining participant from that title crew. He appears round a clubhouse dotted with contemporary, younger faces and wealthy, new free brokers and acknowledges the glory days of the previous and the approaching challenges of the now. Generally, he admitted, it makes him really feel previous at 33.
However baseball gamers are wired to keep within the second. And after Chicago’s rebuilding challenge made an abrupt U-turn this winter, into splurging some $310 million to signal 10 free brokers, there’s renewed power in Cubs camp. From the proprietor Tom Ricketts to Hendricks to the least-tenured rookie, the emphasis is again on outcomes, fairly than growth.
How the Cubs ended up in a steep descent after taking part in in three consecutive Nationwide League Championship Collection from 2015 to 2017, is one thing individuals across the crew nonetheless can not absolutely clarify.
A decade or so in the past, the Cubs and the Houston Astros stripped their rosters down and commenced constructing from the bottom up. The method labored, with each golf equipment ending up with stacked rosters of star gamers that they had developed. However since 2017, the Cubs, who had as soon as appeared on the verge of being a dynasty, have as an alternative spent their Octobers watching the Astros win the World Collection twice, lose a 3rd, and play within the A.L.C.S. six consecutive instances — and counting.
The previous two seasons have seen the Cubs backside out, ending a mixed 34 video games beneath .500. The Astros, who’ve continued to churn out star prospects, have used that growth pipeline to climate the losses of free brokers like George Springer, Carlos Correa and Gerrit Cole — a course of that continued when Justin Verlander signed with the Mets this winter.
The Cubs, in the meantime, blew up a core that might be remembered without end in Wrigleyville for ending 108 years of futility, however did so with out having replacements prepared to step in. They let Kyle Schwarber depart as a free agent in December 2020, fairly than go to wage arbitration with him, and traded away Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez on the buying and selling deadline in 2021 — an acknowledgment that the crew was getting costlier however taking part in worse.
“Obviously, the Cubs and the Astros were in the same boat 10 years ago, or whatever it was, and they have been more successful at sustaining their success,” Ricketts mentioned right here final week. “I’m not sure why that is. I don’t think I could tell you why that is.
“But it’s obviously something we’d like to be more consistent with here.”
Ricketts mentioned Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, “had a great off-season” in buying expertise, filling holes and positioning the Cubs to get again to profitable video games.
“If you take the second half of last year and take the guys we put on the team the last couple of months,” Ricketts mentioned, “I think you’re pretty optimistic.”
As Ricketts famous, the sudden strategic shift may be partially attributed to the crew’s going 39-31 to shut out the 2022 season. The optimism that the franchise was lastly transferring in the fitting course was actual.
However so, too, was this: The Cubs drew the fewest followers to Wrigley Area in a full season since 1997. And for the reason that debut of their regional tv community in February 2020, ratings for their broadcasts have declined by 56 p.c.
The franchise stays flush sufficient to have outspent 25 other clubs on the free-agent market this winter (solely the Yankees, Padres, Mets and Phillies spent extra). However the sharp declines in attendance and tv rankings made it clear that the fan base was not dealing nicely with the crew’s prolonged teardown.
Ricketts dryly famous that a part of the “pulse” of the fan base “comes straight to my email box.” Hoyer insisted the followers’ bitter temper didn’t affect the crew’s spending instantly, however admitted the dissatisfaction factored into its considering.
“Absolutely,” Hoyer mentioned. “Just in terms of, you were a team that could sell out a Tuesday night game in the middle of May against a last-place team. I feel like, when you have that kind of fan support, you want to honor the fans as much as you can with a competitive team. And we obviously did that for a long time. But, you know, we took a step back when we made some of those trades.”
Hoyer emphasised the significance of the baseball operations division’s steadfastly making “the right decisions for the short term and long term based on baseball knowledge and our beliefs” and never permitting feelings to affect course.
Moderately than enthusiastic about what was misplaced or what might have been, Hendricks mentioned, “I think it was exactly what it should have been.”
“It was so emotional and so tough,” he added. “One hundred eight years, everything going on behind that, to go and accomplish that feat as a group together, it took a lot. It takes a lot. And it was time for guys to go and see their hard work fulfilled and get what they get.”
Internally, the Cubs’ leadership still can’t believe that the club failed to sign any of the old core to extensions, and continues to wonder if the combustion of the World Series team was unavoidable. Whether the process of breaking through that 108-year barrier took so much energy that nothing could ever be the same. And whether the main players becoming rock stars in Chicago dulled the winning edge and created expectations — financial and otherwise — that were more than the team could handle.
In shifting gears this winter, Hoyer’s vision was sharp and consistent. He patched holes that were not filled via trade at first base (Hosmer), shortstop (Swanson), center field (Bellinger), catcher (Barnhart) and designated hitter (Mancini). He added the free agents Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly to the team’s starting rotation.
There was an emphasis on run prevention: Swanson, Bellinger and Barnhart all are Gold Glove winners, and with Nico Hoerner moving to second base from shortstop to accommodate Swanson, few teams will be better defensively up the middle than the Cubs.
“My smile just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Hendricks said.
By design, most of the deals are short so as not to block the paths of key minor league prospects. Bellinger, Hosmer and Barnhart are on one-year deals. Mancini got a two-year deal. Of the position players, only Swanson (seven years, $177 million) is signed long-term.
Staying put in Chicago had benefits beyond dollars for Swanson: In December he married the soccer star Mallory Swanson (formerly Pugh), who plays for the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League.
“Probably the best way to sum it up is that we felt this is where we were called to be, to spend the next seven years of our life together,” Swanson said. “And we’re excited to see what’s in store for us.”
Swanson, Bellinger, Hosmer and Smyly all have World Series rings. That, too, was part of the Cubs’ winter strategy: targeting winners who could help young Cubs develop and show the way back to October.
Taillon has already been impressed with Swanson, who has some team building activities planned this spring and a vision of how he wants to lead. Based on their talks, Taillon said he would be watching games between his own starts to help Swanson scout rival pitchers.
“If I see a pattern from a pitcher, we’ll talk about it,” said Taillon, who signed a four-year, $68 million deal in December. “Winning teams and winning players do a good job of that. I saw it with the Yankees all the time, like Gerrit Cole going up to Aaron Judge or whomever and saying: ‘Hey, man, this guy hasn’t thrown a slider for a strike behind in the count all game. So if you’re behind in the count, hunt a fastball.’ Stuff like that. That’s what winning players bring to the table.”
The displaced Hoerner said he was “all in on playing second base and, really, without the shift, just owning that position.”
At 25, Hoerner is one of the few young Cubs to have established himself as a foundation piece, having first come to the majors in 2019 during the last gasps of a dynasty that never quite happened.
“We didn’t really have a sense of what was next,” he mentioned. “I think one of the challenges of the last couple of years is just the amount of different people we’ve had here. This game is so fun and exciting to play when you’re sharing a locker room with guys like that that you can build relationships with. That takes time.
“It’s all been good people here, but I’m excited to potentially have some guys who are going to be around for a while and just go and build those bonds.”