The Cubs have their shortstop in Dansby Swanson, so what’s next?


The Cubs’ addition of Dansby Swanson, on a seven-year, $177 million deal, shows they have a clear plan and direction. It may not have been the big fish fans wanted, like Carlos Correa or Trea Turner, but the incremental improvements this front office has focused on the last two winters provides a glimpse of the overall end game.

Jed Hoyer has attempted to be patient, focusing on “intelligent” spending and looking for players who can help immediately while also avoiding contracts that will handcuff him in the future. Winning immediately is always the priority for fans, but it’s becoming clear the front office doesn’t see 2023 as the season when they become a powerhouse. But they also see that they’re not far off.

By 2024 and 2025, the Cubs envision a team that can compete with the best in the game. But that doesn’t mean they should sit on the sidelines until then. Signing Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki last winter helped set up another offseason in which solid, if not splashy moves — Swanson, Jameson Taillon and likely more — set a floor for the upcoming season while bringing in building blocks for the future.

Nico Hoerner (Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

Hoyer has spent a lot of time talking about defense and pitching this winter and it’s clear that he envisions that as the backbone of the next winning Cubs team. Swanson pushing Nico Hoerner to second with Cody Bellinger in center field — and Pete Crow-Armstrong waiting in the wings — has the look of an up-the-middle defense that pitchers will love working in front of. Of course, there’s still work to do.

The Cubs have made it clear that the direction they’re heading with catcher is more about defense and soft factors. Yan Gomes is a near-perfect example of that. He brings intangible value behind the plate that his pitchers and coaches love. Christian Vázquez, who signed with the Twins Monday night, is another good example.

With Vázquez off the board, Tucker Barnhart remains on the Cubs’ radar. There are other catchers available who fit that mold as well, including Curt Casali and Roberto Perez. Perez only just started playing winter ball after a wrist fracture sidelined him for much of last season, so it’s unclear how big of a target he is. But all three have the characteristics the Cubs are looking for at catcher.

When it comes to pitching, the Cubs now have Stroman, Justin Steele and Taillon at the front, with Drew Smyly looking likely to return as well. Depending on health and effectiveness, Adrian Sampson, Kyle Hendricks and Hayden Wesneski will all compete for that final spot. Hoyer has emphasized the need for depth with the starters and knows that more than five will be required over the course of the season.

The Cubs were at their best last season when the pitching depth finally arrived. Wesneski proved to be impressively effective, Sampson made enough tweaks to be really strong over 104 1/3 innings of work and Javier Assad showed he was a solid depth starter. But outside of Wesneski and Steele, this rotation is shaping up to be one that has little swing and miss, likely relying heavily on soft contact and groundballs.

That’s where Swanson and Hoerner come in. In 2022, Swanson was second in baseball in Outs Above Average and Hoerner was tied for sixth, according to Fangraphs. Moving Hoerner to second, where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2020, should only improve his defensive numbers. Last summer, Smyly repeatedly praised the team’s pitching infrastructure, the clubhouse atmosphere and Chicago in general. Pitching in front of an elite up-the-middle infield group should only improve his experience.

The Cubs’ relief core got a boost with a one-year deal for Brad Boxberger. The veteran right-hander has proven to be a workhorse out of the bullpen, reaching 70 appearances and surpassing 60 innings in each of the last two seasons. While Hoyer would love to construct a homegrown bullpen at some point during his tenure, he understands that their rapidly improving pitching development isn’t quite ready to fill a relief staff just yet.

With that in mind, expect more one-year deals for relievers whose talents the Cubs believe they can maximize. Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and the rest of the coaching staff really value veteran leadership in the bullpen and they’ve proven to be able to take talented relievers who may be coming off down years and get the best out of them. It’s a point of pride for the Cubs and will likely keep them out of the market for multi-year contracts on relievers.

Ultimately, Hoyer is building a team that looks strong but lacks thump on offense. Along with the hole at catcher, first and third base are areas where they could improve. Matt Mervis will have a chance to battle for the first-base job in the spring. His potential as a big-leaguer is a debate among scouts. Is he an All-Star caliber, slugging first baseman? Is he an overhyped prospect who may quickly flame out at the highest level? If he settles in the middle — perhaps similar to what the Brewers had last season in Rowdy Tellez — the Cubs would likely take that.

The Cubs are pursuing a veteran at that spot as insurance should Mervis struggle, or just someone who can take at-bats against lefties should Mervis prove to be effective. Trey Mancini wouldn’t turn the offense into a powerhouse, but he’s a consistent bat who could provide veteran leadership off the field and a steady presence on it. Third base remains a question as well. Are they comfortable going into next season with some combination of Patrick Wisdom, Chris Morel and Zach McKinstry there? Is a multi-year deal for Brandon Drury something Hoyer would consider? Does a veteran like Evan Longoria make sense?

Whatever the decision, Swanson’s addition saves what had the potential to be a disastrous offseason. Now Hoyer has shown what direction he’s headed. He’s not all in for 2023, but he’s built a base that allows the Cubs to have a chance to compete immediately while setting his organization up nicely for the following seasons.

The biggest question going forward will be who will become the linchpin of the lineup. After waiting to see whether Hoyer would pony up for a superstar bat in a crazy market, he showed he was willing to kick that question down the road. Perhaps a prospect emerges, a surprise trade opportunity comes along or next winter’s free-agent class has the answer. But the burning question now becomes how Hoyer will find that impact offensive talent this lineup so clearly needs.

(Photo of Dansby Swanson: Rob Leiter / MLB Photos via Getty Images)


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