The Cubs bought some credibility with an offseason that signaled some urgency

The “heavy lifting” has already been done this offseason as the Chicago Cubs try to build a roster with enough skill, depth and experience to make it an entertaining summer at Wrigley Field. The national experts name the Cubs among the most improved teams in baseball this winter. Baseball America recently ranked three Cubs prospects in its preseason top 100. The major-league club posted a winning record after the All-Star break last year. You can make yourself believe that the Cubs can be a playoff team in 2023.

You can also point out that $300 million doesn’t go as far as it used to in free agency. Signing at least eight players to major-league contracts in one offseason is a partial reflection of some of the problems in scouting and player development in recent years. The highest-ranked Cubs prospect on Baseball America’s list — Pete Crow-Armstrong (No. 25) — has yet to play above the A-ball level, while Brennen Davis’ rating (No. 84) represents a drop of 68 spots from that . time last year amid some concerns about his injury history.

The Cubs don’t know if there is any predictive value in their finish last season. Of their last 61 games, 28 were against the Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals in August, September and October. Pythagoras’ winning percentage, based on run differential, rated the 2022 Cubs as essentially a .500 team in the second half. From coast to coast, the National League is loaded with franchises that have legitimate World Series aspirations this year.

Dansby Swanson with Cubs GM Carter Hawkins (left) and Jed Hoyer (right). (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The beauty of the 162 game plan is that we will soon find out. Jed Hoyer’s front office hasn’t stopped looking for ways to upgrade the bullpen, and there’s still a group of left-handed relievers available on the free agent market that includes Matt Moore, Brad Hand, Andrew Chafin, Zack Britton and Caleb Smith. The Cubs are also looking ahead with a sense of optimism and possibility that probably hasn’t been felt to this degree since Yu Darvish showed up at the Sloan Park complex five years ago after signing his $126 million contract. The first formal workout for Cubs pitchers and catchers in Arizona is just three weeks away.

“All that really matters is how we play,” Hoyer said. “Going into the offseason, when I thought about how we could maximize the dollars we had and the positions we had, I think we ended up very close to where we wanted to be. From that point of view it’s really satisfying, but at the end of the day it’s all about how we play. I’ve seen it when people crush your offseason moves and you have a great year. And I’ve seen the other side of it too.”

There will be no question that Joe Maddon is a lame duck. After the COVID-19 pandemic and Major League Baseball’s lockout, David Ross will finally get a “normal” spring training as Cubs manager in his fourth season on the job. We don’t have to go through the ritual of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Willson Contreras saying how much they love playing in Chicago — and Hoyer saying how much the organization appreciates their contributions — only to have them become ex -Cubs. Selling at the trade deadline is not on the back burner.

It’s unclear how close the Cubs will spend toward the $233 million threshold that triggers the competitive balance tax. Right now, their luxury tax salary is projected to be more than $221 million, according to Roster Resource estimates. It is customary for Hoyer’s baseball department to hold back some money for in-season additions. The Opening Day lineup won’t be a set thing, but the Cubs appear to have a core group of position players they’ll rely on at the start of the season.

C: Yan Gomes/Tucker Barnhart
1B: Eric Hosmer
2B: Nico Hörner
SS: Dansby Swanson
3B: Patrick Wisdom
LF: Ian Happ
CF: Cody Bellinger
RF: Seiya Suzuki
DH: Trey Mancini

“I wouldn’t say a plan was necessarily laid out, but I think with the signings that were made in the offseason, that speaks volumes,” Mancini said this week after the Cubs ended his two-year $14 million contract. “It’s a big step and a big message that it might not be a long process. I think we can turn things around really quickly.”

The Cubs don’t have the firepower to win many high-scoring games or the kind of offensive players expected to carry the team. St. Louis Cardinals, by contrast, signed the Cubs’ best hitter last season (Contreras) to pad a lineup that already featured Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado plus several homegrown hitters. But the big ideas this offseason included buying more credibility, creating some stability and raising the floor with more skilled players who have track records.

To get an idea of ​​how the rest of the baseball industry viewed the organization’s overall talent, at least 14 players associated with the Cubs last season have cleared waivers in the past three months: David Bote, Franmil Reyes, Alec Mills, PJ Higgins, Alfonso Rivas, Brad Wieck, Esteban Quiroz, Jared Young, Narciso Crook, Steven Brault, Anderson Espinoza, Mark Leiter Jr., Manuel Rodriguez and Anthony Kay. Frank Schwindel is reportedly headed to Japan to play for the Orix Buffaloes. Two outfielders who combined for more than 800 plate appearances for the Cubs over the past two seasons (Rafael Ortega and Michael Hermosillo) signed minor-league deals with the New York Yankees. Only one Cubs prospect was selected in the major-league phase of the Rule 5 draft: the Seattle Mariners selected Chris Clarke, a 6-foot-7, right-handed pitcher who reached the Double-A level last year. For perspective on this rebuild, Mancini cited insights from Mychal Givens, his former teammate with the Baltimore Orioles and one of the relievers the Cubs traded away last summer.

“From what I saw and what he said, there’s a lot of young talent in the team and it’s an exciting team, but the experience was a little lacking,” Mancini said. “When you have a lot of exciting, young talent mixed in with some real veteran guys, it can be a good mix. It can really drive the younger guys forward. How fast they grow is very important to the team’s success. It’s just getting the right mix of people in there. We certainly have done that. I’m excited for us all to be in the same clubhouse and get started.”

If Christopher Morel takes what he learned as a rookie and develops a more advanced offensive approach, then the Cubs will have a dynamic player who can move around the field defensively. If Matt Mervis carries on from his breakout season in the minors last year (36 homers, 119 RBIs), then he could eventually provide some of the left-handed power the lineup lacks. If Nick Madrigal stays healthy and shows he can be a .300 hitter again, then that’s a bonus. If Davis gets back to full strength and puts it all together, there’s a potential star at Wrigley Field one day. But the Cubs can stack their Triple-A Iowa roster with those kinds of wild cards instead of relying too heavily on unproven, inexperienced players.

After the lack of rotation depth ended the team’s competitive hopes in 2021 (in early July) and 2022 (in early May), the Cubs are now in a position where Kyle Hendricks can take time to rehabilitate his right shoulder and fine tune his mechanics. There should be healthy competition for the No. 5 spot in the Opening Day rotation among pitchers like Hayden Wesneski, Keegan Thompson and Adrian Sampson. Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly combined to make 103 starts last season, and each pitcher finished with an ERA between 3.18 and 3.91. Highlighted by the addition of Swanson, the $177 million Gold Glove shortstop, the Cubs transformed a defense that allowed the most unearned runs (89) in the majors last year.

“If you look at our pitching staff, the types of pitchers we have and the defense you put behind them, I think it makes a lot of sense,” Hoerner said. “It is a team that can win in many different contexts and win in different ways. It especially requires Wrigley Field. Playing baseball there in April – and hopefully October – that’s sometimes what you need. We are off to a good start.”

The Cubs aren’t done yet. Adding a late-inning reliever with some closing experience would make a lot of sense. Maybe there’s still a veteran out there who could fill a certain role off the bench. The only offseason grade is incomplete until the Cubs start playing real games again.

“We talked a lot last year about what it meant to finish strong,” Hoerner said. “We played well down the stretch. We had contributions from a lot of different places. I hope that helped get some players in and just generally helped the momentum of this organization. That’s really impactful. We’ll definitely into spring this year with a different feeling than we have had in the past.”

(Photo by Jed Hoyer: Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today)

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