MESA, Ariz. — Could the next year come this year for the Cubs? It is not impossible.
After taking a few years to rebuild the Wrigley Field area (and the team as well), the Cubs may finally be ready to compete again.
The Cubs are as lovable as ever — new signings Trey Mancini, Jameson Taillon and Eric Hosmer are among the nicest guys in the game. But more fundamentally, they finally got serious about something besides the field and the district, and did some real baseball work this winter.
The new look is obvious. After a year in which they finished surprisingly strong but remained a second-tier club and the ‘Wait ’til next year!’ of the generation! rallying cry was heard early, the Cubs made a big push this winter. Yes, indeed, they spent some of their revenue – more than $280 million on seven veteran players.
After last winter, when they made some strange and (hopefully) economical signings, including ex-Yankee and ex-Clint Frazier (who changed his name to Jackson Frazier, but not his game), they brought in some real game-changers. The hopes of bolstering a team that goes beyond 74-88 are real. The new core can’t compete with the team that ended the curse seven years ago, but it’s a nice mix of experience and skill.
The two big acquisitions may turn out to be star Dansby Swanson, who has improved his game to the elite spot and brings a history of wins, and Cody Bellinger, who hopes to become elite again. Bellinger is a former league MVP trying to recapture that form or come close to it.
“He looked really good,” Taillon said of Bellinger. “He’s the first guy here every day. You see things on Twitter where it looks like his head is in the clouds. But this dude, he knows what’s going on.”
Bellinger is also healthy after shoulder surgery to repair severe damage from his forearm hit during the 2020 World Series with Dodgers teammate Kiké Hernandez. “Locked and loaded,” is how Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins put Bellinger’s current status.
The 2019 NL MVP, who had a 1.035 OPS that year, posted two straight seasons in which he ranked 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 track him down for an interview as he was working – a good sign.)
Taillon came to the Cubs in part for the city and the history. But in a recent scrimmage, he had a different take on his new team.
“I came out of batting practice saying we might make some noise,” Taillon said. “I was very impressed. We’re going to grind out the bats. We have some power. We have some speed. We can play defense.”
Over the past two years, most of the defense the Cubs have played has been to explain why the ultra-rich team had spent so little. There was no way that could happen again, not with the fans clamoring for an upset and the team showing signs of hope of late.
There aren’t many top prospects at the top of the big league level. So winter pickups were huge, and absolutely necessary. They have plenty of rotation candidates, but only three certainties — Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele and Taillon.
They also have a lot more questions: Will Nico Horner look as good at second base as he does at shortstop (that’s a yes)? Can Ian Happ repeat his performance from a year ago? Have they adequately replaced Willson Contreras behind the plate? And of course, the big man could consider Bellinger.
To the surprise of most, the Cubs actually played better than .500 over the final two months of the 2022 season, showing much more effort than ownership had in recent years. Some saw it as a mirage, or perhaps even a miracle. Either way, they showed great effort under their excellent young manager, David Ross.
Mancini came because the Cubs were the team most interested (and it didn’t hurt that 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 — seemingly a Cubs staple.
“We’re all doing fantastically,” he said. “That matters. I noticed that in Houston.”
Of course, the champion Astros are a multi-talented team from top to bottom. The Cubs aren’t there yet.
On paper, they look less than the favorite in the NL Central, where the Cardinals and Brewers have dominated the past few years and are once again seen as the top teams.
“I feel like we have the players to put us in a position to make us relevant in the division,” Hawkins said. “Realistically, we’re not, we’re not the favorites in the division and we should surprise a few people.”
There is a lot of energy in Cubs camp, as it should be. There’s a lot more talent, too. But even with the additions, the question remains: Is it enough?