The 2023 Cubs Convention has officially been over for several hours as I’m writing this, but I ended up taking off Saturday afternoon following what ended up being a very fulfilling experience. I’ve been pretty lukewarm on CubsCon in the past because I’m effectively there working all day Saturday and the semi-objective nature of the gig is that I can’t truly connect with the fanboy aspect any longer.
It’s not quite to the level of an actual beat writer who has to strangle their inner fan and bury them in the backyard somewhere, but I’d say mine is tied up in the basement. The constant barrage of information can be a little overwhelming if you’re trying to cover all the different panels, some of which just feature ownership and front office members repeating the same exact talking points they already test-drove in previous radio interviews.
All that said, it’s hard not to get caught up in the optimism of the whole thing, especially when a lighter crowd yielded a higher-than-usual concentration of positive vibes. That might have been true regardless, what with this being the first CubsCon in three years, but I got the sense that most fans willing to be openly critical of the team saw no reason to pay for the privilege of doing so.
Then you’ve got all the players and staff for whom this was their first experience of what I have to think is the biggest such fan convention in MLB. Players whose additions to the roster were met with vitriolic jeers online received warm welcomes and saw autograph lines stretching hundreds deep throughout Saturday’s festivities. It was enough to make even the pragmatists among us start to feel like maybe Tom Ricketts was being serious when he said the Cubs can make a playoff push.
With that preamble out of the way, I want to look at a few of my takeaways from the weekend and the offseason as a whole to this point. Fair warning: The “People” section is pretty lengthy and more personal in nature, so you may want to skip it if that’s not your jam.
Floor has been raised
The Cubs had a better roster on paper even before adding Trey Mancini Saturday night, so now it’s looking even more like a low-key solid team. They’ve significantly upgraded the defense up the middle and have a very good starting rotation with a pair of middle relievers in Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay who can be electric for multiple innings.
While they lack a true ace and the offense looks pretty pedestrian, there aren’t as many major weak spots to be exploited. Eric Hosmer is no longer a Gold Glove defender and his bat isn’t very dangerous, but you know what you’re getting for a minimum salary. Jameson Taillon isn’t coming in throwing 100 and striking out 12 batters a game, he’s just a workmanlike starter who’ll set the tone.
Tucker Barnhart will be the first to tell you he had an awful season in Detroit, probably due in small part to pressing a little in his contract year. There were several other factors involved as well, but the longtime Red learned from those and believes the Cubs got a much better player than the numbers indicate. Pitchers trust Barnhart and Yan Gomes, and that should show in their performance.
When things have gone wrong for the Cubs over the past two seasons, they’ve tended to go way wrong. The team will fall into a skid and it looks like no one is having fun at all. Not that losing should be fun, but it’s been as though each player got news during the game that both his dog and grandma died. Couple that with a thin roster that wasn’t well-balanced and you’ve got a recipe for long losing streaks.
I really do believe there’s potential for a breakout or three to make this a damn good team, but it’s more about having a higher baseline.
Matt Mervis being given room to grow
Hosmer is expected to be the primary first baseman with Mancini platooning there and serving as the main DH, which could put Mervis in Iowa to start the season. That’s less about the Cubs lacking faith in Mash, whose prodigious power would boost an area in which the team is lacking, and more about the front office setting up guardrails for the rookie.
Rather than relying on Mervis to produce early and often, Jed Hoyer has ensured the big club has veterans who can offer both guidance and security. I saw it noted that Anthony Rizzo was brought along similarly during his first season with the Cubs following his trade from the Padres. Bryan LaHair was the starter that season, his last in MLB, and he was putting up a 140 wRC+ with 13 homers through June 25.
But he was shifted to a right field/bench bat role on June 16 to prep for Rizzo’s eventual promotion on June 26, after which LaHair had a 66 wRC+ with three homers. The Cubs could be hoping to get Mervis off to a hot start in Triple-A before easing him into a rotation at first base and DH, or they could be keeping the options open for him to be up right away. Whatever the case, he doesn’t need him to carry the offense right away.
Makeup is key factor
It’s been clear for a while now that the Cubs targeted leaders and strong character in their offseason pursuits, and you can really hear and feel that when players and execs talk about the new additions. That’s not just from trite cliches being shared with media members, it’s what you hear when talking with players off the record. These guys are genuinely excited for the season and their new teammates.
Talent is the ultimate predictor of success, but confidence is the best way to allow talent to shine. This Cubs team has a ton of confidence and the vibes were super strong over the weekend.
I can’t say much about these because I really only attended the Ricketts family’s little dog and pony show and the baseball operations discussion. Neither featured much I couldn’t have written up even without listening, which was to be expected. My biggest note from baseball ops may be that Carter Hawkins seemed much looser and funnier than I was aware.
However, it was great for fans to have a chance to once again hear some of this stuff directly from players and execs. CubsCon is all about getting access to the team on a more intimate level, and I don’t think many walked away feeling cheated on that front.
For me, this is always the driving force of the weekend and it’s the reason I continue to go back. CubsCon offers a unique opportunity to get together with dozens of people I’ve gotten to know well through this gig, whether it’s fellow writers, podcasters, or just folks who read CI. The Friday night gathering at Lizzie McNeill’s is easily the highlight of the event. We all drink too much and talk too loud and reconnect for a few hours as everything seems right with the world.
For me, it doesn’t get more emotionally and personally fulfilling than getting a big hug from a big-name blog colleague and then walking into a quiet (at that point) bar and getting a round of hugs from the friends seated around the table. Some were people I’ve known for years but had never met.
Maybe it’s the friend who had macarons sent to my daughter in hospital back in 2019 or the guy who I “fired” from writing recaps who thanked me profusely for the wake-up call it provided. It could even be the person with whom I carry on a facetious Twitter rivalry. Heck, it was even cool to see Michael Canter. The list of old friends goes on, but there are also new ones who read or listen to our work. A lot of the people there weren’t even attending the convention.
Saturday had plenty of its own merits as well, and this was a particularly good day for me because I got to connect or re-connect with so many people. The folks at both South Bend Cubs and Myrtle Beach have treated me and my family so well over the years and I spent a lot of time at their booths in the afternoon. I did a little sit-down with Pelicans broadcaster Sam Weiderhaft, who I had not previously met, then stuck around to see who else might show up.
Righty reliever Ethan Roberts is one of my favorite people in the world and it did my heart good to talk with him for a few minutes. A relentlessly positive person who I’ve never seen without a genuine smile on his face, Roberts has been on the shelf following Tommy John surgery last year. Just hearing him share his excitement to start throwing again next week and his timeline for recovery made me want to run through a brick wall.
I also got to meet Boog Sciambi, who is a fellow sneakerhead and a great guy. This was his first CubsCon and he seemed to be just as impressed by the atmosphere as all the players. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to hang out with Mervis due to his schedule, though I understand he name-dropped me at one point.
— erin🌻💀 (@fitzy_erin) January 14, 2023
Then there was Barnhart, whose autograph I waited in a long line to get. After George Altman a few years back, it’s only the second CubsCon autograph I’ve even considered. Because Barnhart is from our current hometown of Brownsburg, IN, my son thought it would be cool to get a signature on his hat from his 7th grade baseball team. What’s more, my son goes to Tucker’s dad for hitting lessons.
That was a neat little moment, but there’s one more that I have to share because it sort of came out of the blue. One of my good buddies from high school got a job a little while back as a compliance manager with the Cubs and I was wondering whether I might run into him. We hung out and played golf at our high school reunion last summer, but that was really only the second time we’d seen each other in 25 years.
So here I am hanging out downstairs when he goes walking by. After a double-take, we shared a bear hug and then caught up on his gig and how the event gets pulled together behind the scenes. It’s just wild to me that two kids from a nowhere town in Northwest Indiana crossed paths again through a connection to the Cubs. What a trip.
I also got some tips on the best spots to go in South Bend, stood in line with a dude in a M*A*S*H Mervis shirt who happens to be a longtime reader, and was behind folks from Indianapolis. It took me about five hours to wind down last night, and that’s after a three-hour drive home.
Sorry for all the rambling, just wanted to get that all out there. I’ll close by offering a heartfelt thank you to anyone who’s read or listened or watched over the years because I know there are a lot of you out there even if I joke about us only having two readers.