MESA, Ariz. — This season’s Chicago Cubs should come packaged in a wax wrapper with a stale stick of bubble gum. No other team can better replicate one of thrilling rites of spring: opening of a new pack of baseball 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 starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks said 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 greatest moment in club history, the Cubs’ 2016 World Series championship, Hendricks is the last remaining player from that title team. He looks around a clubhouse dotted with fresh, young faces and rich, new free agents and acknowledges the glory days of the past and the impending challenges of the now. Sometimes, he admitted, it makes him feel old at 33.
But baseball players are wired to stay in the moment. And after Chicago’s rebuilding project made an abrupt U-turn this winter, into splurging some $310 million to sign 10 free agents, there is renewed energy in Cubs camp. From the owner Tom Ricketts to Hendricks to the least-tenured rookie, the emphasis is back on results, rather than development.
How the Cubs ended up in a steep descent after playing in three consecutive National League Championship Series from 2015-17, is something people around the team still cannot fully explain.
A decade or so ago the Cubs and the Houston Astros stripped their rosters down and began building from the ground up. The process worked, with both clubs ending up with stacked rosters of star players they had developed. But since 2017, the Cubs, who had once appeared on the verge of being a dynasty, have instead spent their Octobers watching the Astros win the World Series twice, lose a third, and play in the A.L.C.S. six consecutive times — and counting.
The past two seasons have seen the Cubs bottom out, finishing a combined 34 games under .500. The Astros, who have continued to churn out star prospects, have used that development pipeline to weather the losses of free agents like George Springer, Carlos Correa and Gerrit Cole — a process that continued when Justin Verlander signed with the Mets this winter.
The Cubs, meanwhile, blew up a core that will be remembered forever in Wrigleyville for ending 108 years of futility, but did so without having replacements ready to step in. They let Kyle Schwarber leave as a free agent in December 2020, rather than going to salary arbitration with him, and traded away Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez at the trading deadline in 2021 — an acknowledgment that the team was getting more expensive but playing 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 said here this 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 said Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, “had a great off-season” in acquiring talent, filling holes and positioning the Cubs to get back to winning 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 said, “I think you’re pretty optimistic.”
As Ricketts noted, the sudden strategic shift can be partially attributed to the team’s going 39-31 to close out the 2022 season. The optimism that the franchise was finally moving in the right direction was real.
But so, too, was this: The Cubs drew the fewest fans to Wrigley Field in a full season since 1997. And since the debut of their regional television network in February 2020, ratings for their broadcasts have declined by 56 percent.
The franchise remains flush enough to have outspent 25 other clubs on the free-agent market this winter (only the Yankees, Padres, Mets and Phillies spent more). But the sharp declines in attendance and television ratings made it clear that the fan base was not dealing well with the team’s extended teardown.
Ricketts dryly noted that part of the “pulse” of the fan base “comes straight to my email box.” Hoyer insisted the fans’ sour mood did not influence the team’s spending directly, but admitted the dissatisfaction factored into its thinking.
“Absolutely,” Hoyer said. “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 emphasized the importance of the baseball operations department’s steadfastly making “the right decisions for the short term and long term based on baseball knowledge and our beliefs” and not allowing emotions to influence direction.
Rather than thinking about what was lost or what could have been, Hendricks said, “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 already has 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 said. “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 awhile and just go and build those bonds.”