At the risk of putting too much stock into the actual results this spring — as of this writing, the Cubs have won nine straight — it’s getting really difficult to dismiss the early success we’ve seen from Jed Hoyer’s team. Even if we set the winning streak aside, this already looks like a fully-fleshed group playing a brand of baseball that will remain successful when the games matter.
That isn’t a fluke or mistake, though not everyone is sold on the Cubs’ ability to compete and some still actually believe the organization is actively hoping to lose. Look, if you want to believe guaranteeing $300 million in player salaries is nothing more than a ploy to trick gullible fans into buying tickets, I’m not even going to bother trying to change your mind. I’d also recommend you stop reading because there are surely better things you could do with your time.
Don’t get me wrong, I wanted things to work out differently from what they have and it still stings to think about the integral players the Cubs traded away or let walk. But living in resentment over those moves is no different from resting on the success of 2016. What’s become apparent to those who are willing and able to view this current iteration of the team objectively is that Hoyer and GM Carter Hawkins have engineered their rebuild to function like a pre-fabricated bridge.
Rather than protracting that analogy, I’ll just share this entrancing time-lapse video that I feel illustrates what the Cubs have done over the last 18 months or so.
Setting the tear-down aside, what I find most interesting and exciting about the current roster is how the front office brought in players who were able to slot into the lineup and clubhouse without missing a beat. Dansby Swanson, whose leadership will help guide the Cubs over the next several years, didn’t just sign because he was getting more money in Chicago than anywhere else.
I mean, yeah, money’s always going to be a factor. But he also explained how he had emotional ties to the Cubs through his late grandfather and how he believed the organization wanted to get back to playing winning baseball in a hurry. As Freddie Freeman shared with Patrick Mooney of The Athletic, several factors will allow Swanson to transition to his new club quickly.
“He’s got a good team around him, people who have been through it,” Freeman said. “He’s going to be just fine. He’ll take to Chicago very nicely. Mal’s already been there for a few years playing, so they’re going to be feet on the ground, settled already. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
That theme continues with Tucker Barnhart, who also grew up watching the Cubs as a kid from Brownsburg, IN. He was coming up in the Reds organization when third base coach Willie Harris was finishing out his career in Cincinnati, and assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington was the hitting coach for Barnhart’s Arizona Fall League squad in 2013.
David Ross was no longer with the Reds by the time Barnhart was drafted in 2009, but the manager was familiar with his fellow catcher as an opposing player and then manager. That familiarity was a big part of the Cubs’ pitch to Barnhart, but the catcher has already exceeded expectations when it comes to getting to know his pitchers.
“Tucker’s been around a long time,” Ross told reporters. “He knows how to go about his business. I don’t know anybody that I’ve managed that hit the ground running as fast as him. As soon as he signed with us, he was watching video of all the pitchers and calling people and wanting to be on the pitching group text.”
Stuff like that might seem insignificant, but then you hear Jameson Taillon talking about how trusting his catchers and letting them call his games allows him to avoid thinking on the mound. Though he’s a seasoned veteran at this point, Taillon is also new to the team and hasn’t had a normal spring training in several years. Then there’s the new sweeping slider he’s trying to work into his repertoire.
Or how about Hayden Wesneski, who impressed over five starts last season and looks to be the early favorite to land the fifth spot in the starting rotation? Don’t let the confident air fool you, it’s really easy for a young player to start pressing and forcing things to happen rather than letting the game flow. Having a catcher who already understands your game prior to ever working with you has to be a tremendous relief.
“The dude has already done his homework,” Wesneski said. “It kind of blew me away to think that in the first bullpen I threw in spring, he knew about me already.”
Talent is always going to be the driving force of any successful team and I don’t want to undersell the fact that the Cubs did a really good job of improving the roster while also increasing its depth. Chemistry alone can’t carry them to 85 wins or whatever you think it’ll take to make the postseason, but it can help to bring out the best in that talent. By bringing in free agents who can step in with no growing pains and by inking deals that provide immediate certainty without limiting flexibility — this is more in terms of spots than money — the front office looks to have engineered a nice bridge year.
At the very least, this appears to be a hungry team that isn’t willing to lie down after falling behind early. That wasn’t necessarily the case over the last year or two, as there were times when it just seemed the Cubs were playing without anything approaching the level of passion they displayed in 2015 and ’16. Maybe that’s revisionist history, but people knew in real time that they looked cooked.
Now I guess it’s a matter of seeing how the bridge holds up to the rigors of the season.