MESA – Last season, the Chicago Cubs finished under .500 for the second year in a row, with a subpar record of 74-88.
It was manager David Ross’s third year with the team and another season of the supposed
“rebuild” that the organization has undertaken after dismantling the 2016 World Series squad. This past offseason seemed to be crucial if the Cubs wanted to make that next step and compete again in the National League Central Division.
It’s safe to say they took action.
The Cubs made a Major League Baseball-high 10 new acquisitions this winter, increasing their payroll by $22 million from $147 million to $169 million.
“It’s been great.” said pitcher Michael Fulmer, who was signed on a 1-year, $4 million deal in February. “I’m getting to know my new teammates, and everybody’s got a winning attitude. And everybody’s playing well right now, we’re already ready for the season to start.”
Two of the team’s more notable free agent acquisitions were shortstop Dansby Swanson, who signed a seven-year contract worth $177 million, and former National League MVP Cody Bellinger, the outfielder/first baseman who signed for a more modest one-year deal worth $17.5 million.
After winning the World Series with the Atlanta Braves in 2021, Swanson had arguably his best season statistically in 2022. He drove in 96 runs while hitting 25 homers, and showcasing his speed with a career-high 18 steals. However, Swanson’s best trait can be boiled down to one thing: durability. He played all 162 games last season.
To put it into perspective, Swanson is the only player in the entire MLB who started all 162 games last season. He started all those games at shortstop, which is one of the more physically demanding positions in the sport with the amount of action that the job entails.
One of the biggest challenges Swanson faced coming to Chicago was moving away from his home state of Georgia.
“I’m a very routine-oriented person,” said Swanson, a native of Kennesaw, Georgia. “Atlanta was home, I haven’t left home in over seven years, so just the newness and everything like that can be a challenge just for me. I didn’t move once as a kid, everything was pretty standard and straightforward for me. It’s kind of like one of my first few times going through it. I’m finding my way.”
Swanson said his new clubhouse is filled with veteran experience and that the coaching staff is top-notch. One guy who has stood out to Swanson so far on the team has been Ian Happ.
Entering his sixth season with Chicago, the 28-year-old Happ is one of the longer-tenured players on the Cubs and was the top-rated player on the team by wins above average last season with 4.4.
“Happ has been great,” Swanson said. “Just because he’s been here, he’s kind of seen the ups and downs here. He knows this place in and out. And it’s fun being able to bounce things off different guys, and how they view things, how they go about their business.”
Swanson is expected to be one of the cornerstones of these new-look Cubs. Bellinger, on the other hand, is looking to restore his career.
After winning NL MVP in 2019 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Bellinger regressed at the plate substantially, going from a .309 batting average to a .165 in 2021. The Dodgers non-tendered him after this season, where he batted .210 and had 68 RBI.
The Scottsdale native says he feels “super refreshed” to be in a new clubhouse for the first time in his career
Four out of the 10 signings the Cubs made were pitchers, headlined by Jameson Tailllon and Fulmer. Taillion, a former New York Yankee and Pittsburgh Pirate, secured a deal worth $68 million over the next four years and is expected to create a one-two punch with Cubs ace Marcus Stroman. Stroman signed with the Cubs last offseason for 3 years, $71 million.
Fulmer is expected to be one of the better options this year for the Cubs’ closer position, one that saw a rotation of 10 pitchers register for a save in 2022 after David Robertson was traded at the deadline to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Next to Fulmer’s locker is another 2023 signee, Brad Boxberger. The two right-handed arms are expected to carry most of the weight in the ninth inning. Boxberger, a 10-year veteran, was signed for $2.8 million on a one-year contract, similar to Fulmer.
“With all the free agents that the Cubs brought in, I feel like I know them all already because I played against them for so long,” Fulmer said. “I feel like I know these guys on a personal level, especially being from the American League and facing most of them so many times, and yeah, they’ve all gotten their hits off me and I’m just glad. I don’t want to face those guys anymore.”
One of the players Fulmer recalled facing many times was new teammate Eric Hosmer, the former World Series champion who signed a one-year deal with the Cubs this offseason for $720,000. The 33-year-old first baseman is long past his prime days in the mid-2010s, however, he provides much-needed depth and veteran experience to the clubhouse.
“It’s been a smooth spring so far,” Hosmer said. “I’m getting used to all the new teammates and new coaches and all that. The extra time has been helping me get to know everybody and fit in the clubhouse.”
All of the new additions had positive remarks about Ross, who was a member of the 2016 Cubs that won the World Series and is going into his third season as manager.
“He’s definitely a player’s manager, he communicates with you well,” Hosmer said. “He’s kept it loose, kept the fun here for us. But at the same time, he wants to win. He knows what the recipe is to win. And he knows what it takes to get done. So we all have a lot of respect for him at the same time.”
Trey Mancini, another offseason Cubs signing, can be described as a utility player who can play first base but also holds his own in the outfield, particularly in right. He is also sometimes a designated hitter, so he’s worth putting in the lineup with his glove.
Mancini was a mainstay in the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup for five seasons before he was traded at last year’s deadline to the Houston Astros, where he didn’t see much playing time for the eventual World Series champions.
With multiple players who can play multiple positions, Ross says there will be a lot of decisions to make in the field this year with all the new signings, especially when it comes to finding the right matchups at the plate.
For the Cubs, these signings should help bolster a rebuilding squad that is looking to get back to playoffs after missing out for two seasons and turn into a legit contender over these next few seasons.
“The mentality in this clubhouse is to continue building chemistry,” Swanson said. “We’re trying to continue pulling in the right direction of what we’re trying to accomplish.”