Chicago Cubs finding identity as 2024 regular season approaches with sights set on NL Central crown

Chicago Cubs rising stars Seiya Suzuki, right, and Christopher Morel are ready to shine as the team prepares for a season of rebuilding and reclaiming NL Central dominance. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

MESA — MLB spring training provides a mix of key players in their prime, young minor league prospects making a name for themselves and older veterans proving they still have what it takes, and the Chicago Cubs are a great example of that as a team with aspirations of winning the National League Central Division.

The Cubs won the NL Central in 2020, but the last time they did it in a 162-game season was 2017, which was the year after they broke the 108-year drought of winning the World Series. Even though Chicago lifted the Commissioner’s Trophy eight years ago, the team has changed dramatically since that championship team.

Right-handed starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks is the only player on the active roster left from that 2016 squad. The Cubs had righty relief pitcher Carl Edwards Jr. – who was on that World Series roster in his second major league season – in camp as a non-roster invitee, but he opted out of his minor league contract on March 23.

The architect of that championship team was president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who stepped down in November 2020. General manager Jed Hoyer took over his spot and made an impact in his first season as president when he traded Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez – the team’s three foundational infielders – at the 2021 trade deadline to commit to a rebuild.

The decision this past winter to move off manager David Ross, who was the team’s veteran catcher in 2016, and sign manager Craig Counsell from the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers truly signaled a changing of the guard. Counsell managed in Milwaukee for nine seasons, so he learned a lot about the Cubs from the opposing dugout. However, it’s a whole new experience joining the team while hearing information from people in the organization and seeing it with his own eyes.

“It’s weird, there’s players now I had an offseason idea about. This is what I was told or this is what I saw, right?” Counsell said. “So now, I’ve got like a month with them. Knowing them and watching them. I’d say the last couple of days, I’ve really allowed myself to make some other judgments about people – if that makes sense – after seeing them. Try to give everybody some time to spring out of the cobwebs and everything like that … I don’t think you can know that until the season starts.”

The Cubs are still trying to find themself as the season approaches with their first game Thursday at Globe Life Park to play the defending World Series champion Texas Rangers. By no means is that abnormal with a new manager in the fold, but Counsell is fortunate to inherit a strong foundation.

Chicago endured a couple of losing seasons in 2021 and 2022 while trading away those fan favorites for some talented prospects, but second baseman Nico Hoerner is a key player on this team and the Cubs drafted him before the rebuild even started.

The Cubs took Hoerner with the No. 24 pick in the 2018 Draft out of Stanford and he became a regular starter for the team in 2022. When there was not much to root for, the second baseman’s development was always something to monitor.

Hoerner is only 26 years old, but he is becoming one of the leaders of the team with a .283 batting average and 43 stolen bases in 150 games last season. Hoerner is one of the team’s established homegrown players and feels good about what Hoyer has built around him.

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“I think we have a nice combination of a group of guys from last year that have now gone through a full season together and had success, but also a healthy amount of adversity that I feel like is good for groups to build,” Hoerner said. “Combine that with some additions outside from free agency and then with guys coming up from the minor leagues and I think we are in a really good place in our organization.”

Hoerner’s development and Chicago’s ability to sign star free agents helped expedite the rebuild. The Cubs had a big offseason last year when they signed first baseman/outfielder Cody Bellinger, shortstop Dansby Swanson and right-handed starting pitcher Jameson Taillon, which resulted in an 83-79 season and just missing out on a wild card berth in the playoffs.

Swanson and Taillon signed multi-year deals, but Bellinger had a one-year deal to prove himself after a couple rough seasons following his 2019 NL MVP season. However, Chicago found a way to bring Bellinger back in late February, which capped off another impressive offseason with other signings like pitchers Shōta Imanaga and Héctor Neris.

These are the names that catch people’s attention, but there are also some under-the-radar moves as non-roster invitees that baseball fans would recognize. For example, players like catcher Jorge Alfaro, infielder Garrett Cooper and outfielder David Peralta have played several seasons with different teams, but now they bring that experience in an attempt to make the active roster as spring training wraps up.

Look at a guy like Peralta, a former gold glove winner and silver slugger that Arizona Diamondbacks fans know well as he spent the first nine years of his career in the Valley. Even though the former Diamondback has a strong resume as he enters his 11th MLB season, he has to prove himself again, which is nothing new for the outfielder.

“I know the amount of effort to get invited into this club, but it doesn’t change anything to me,” Peralta said. “Since I played my first big league camp, which was 2014, I never take anything for granted, so I always compete. It doesn’t matter if they come and told me, ‘Hey, you got a job.’ Just set it on myself like, ey, you’ve got to compete for the spot,’ even if I already know that I have a spot.

“So for me, it doesn’t change anything. I’m a competitor. I like to show or prove everything. I was doing the same thing years ago, so I’m going keep doing the same thing because that’s what keeps me here.”

Peralta is coming off a season with the Dodgers where the expectation was to win the World Series, but the expectations for the Cubs are not nearly as lofty. The goal is always to win it all, but just making the playoffs is a sign of progress for this team.

Chicago may not be considered one of the elite teams in the MLB, but it plays in the NL Central, which is a division that is wide open. The Brewers won it last year, but they traded away their ace pitcher Corbin Burnes and lost their manager, to of all teams, the Cubs. Hoerner and the Cubs noticed, so they are ready to compete and take the next step.

“I think there’s a lot of teams with a lot to prove this year in our division,” Hoerner siad. “I think our mentality, especially this time of year, is just being the best version of ourselves and seeing that play out over 162 (games). We’ll see as things emerge throughout the season and it’s always hard to predict, but we feel like at the very least, if we play our best brand of baseball, we’ll be in a good spot.”

Justin de Haas(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Justin de Haas expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. de Haas has interned as a reporter for the Walnut Creek Crawdads of the California Collegiate League and reported on the Arizona State women’s soccer and lacrosse teams for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network.