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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In the aftermath of a would-be dynasty, the Cubs begin to build

After their World Series curse was lifted, the Cubs faded away and jettisoned their stars. The brutal process of starting over took a turn this off-season thanks to $310 million in free agents.

By Scott Miller

This season’s Chicago Cubs should come packaged in a wax wrapper with a stale stick of bubble gum. No other team can better replicate one of the thrilling rites of spring: opening a new pack of baseball cards.

Hey, there’s a Dansby Swanson … wow, a Cody Bellinger … look, an Eric Hosmer and a Tucker Barnhart! And Trey Mancini, too?

“The spoils of riches,” starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks said with a smile. “I feel like every time you opened social media this offseason, it seemed like we were getting another guy.”

Seven years after the greatest moment in club history, the Cubs’ 2016 World Series championship, Hendricks is the last remaining player from that title team. He looks around a clubhouse dotted with fresh, young faces and rich, new free agents and acknowledges the glory days of the past and the impending challenges of the now. Sometimes, he admitted, it makes him feel old at 33.

But baseball players are wired to stay in the moment. And after Chicago’s rebuilding project made an abrupt U-turn this winter, into splurging some $310 million to sign 10 free agents, there is renewed energy in Cubs camp. From owner Tom Ricketts to Hendricks to the least-tenured rookie, the emphasis is back on results, rather than development.

How the Cubs ended up in a steep descent after playing in three consecutive National League Championship Series from 2015-17, is something people around the team still cannot fully explain.

A decade or so ago the Cubs and the Houston Astros stripped their rosters down and began building from the ground up. The process worked, with both clubs ending up with stacked rosters of star players they had developed. But since 2017, the Cubs, who had once appeared on the verge of being a dynasty, have instead spent their Octobers watching the Astros win the World Series twice, lose a third, and play in the ALCS six consecutive times — and counting.

The past two seasons have seen the Cubs bottom out, finishing a combined 34 games under .500. The Astros, who have continued to churn out star prospects, have used that development pipeline to weather the losses of free agents like George Springer, Carlos Correa and Gerrit Cole — a process that continued when Justin Verlander signed with the New York Mets this winter.

The Cubs, meanwhile, blew up a core that will be remembered forever in Wrigleyville for ending 108 years of futility, but did so without having replacements ready to step in. They let Kyle Schwarber leave as a free agent in December 2020, rather than going to salary arbitration with him, and traded away Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez at the trading deadline in 2021 — an acknowledgment that the team was getting more expensive but playing worse.

“Obviously, the Cubs and the Astros were in the same boat 10 years ago, or whatever it was, and they have been more successful at sustaining their success,” Ricketts said in Mesa, Arizona last week. “I’m not sure why that is. I don’t think I could tell you why that is.

“But it’s obviously something we’d like to be more consistent with here.”

Ricketts said Jed Hoyer, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, “had a great offseason” in acquiring talent, filling holes and positioning the Cubs to get back to winning games.

“If you take the second half of last year and take the guys we put on the team the last couple of months,” Ricketts said, “I think you’re pretty optimistic.”

As Ricketts noted, the sudden strategic shift can be partially attributed to the team’s going 39-31 to close out the 2022 season. The optimism that the franchise was finally moving in the right direction was real.

But so, too, was this: The Cubs drew the fewest fans to Wrigley Field in a full season since 1997. And since the debut of their regional television network in February 2020, ratings for their broadcasts have declined by 56%.

The franchise remains flush enough to have outspent 25 other clubs on the free-agent market this winter (only the New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, Mets and Philadelphia Phillies spent more). But the sharp declines in attendance and television ratings made it clear that the fan base was not dealing well with the team’s extended teardown.

Ricketts dryly noted that part of the “pulse” of the fan base “comes straight to my email box.” Hoyer insisted the fans’ sour mood did not influence the team’s spending directly, but admitted the dissatisfaction factored into its thinking.

“Absolutely,” Hoyer said. “Just in terms of, you were a team that could sell out a Tuesday night game in the middle of May against a last-place team. I feel like, when you have that kind of fan support, you want to honor the fans as much as you can with a competitive team. And we obviously did that for a long time. But, you know, we took a step back when we made some of those trades.”

Hoyer emphasized the importance of the baseball operations department’s steadfastly making “the right decisions for the short term and long term based on baseball knowledge and our beliefs” and not allowing emotions to influence direction.

Rather than thinking about what was lost or what could have been, Hendricks said, “I think it was exactly what it should have been.”

“It was so emotional and so tough,” he added. “One-hundred eight years, everything going on behind that, to go and accomplish that feat as a group together, it took a lot. It takes a lot. And it was time for guys to go and see their hard work fulfilled and get what they get.”

In shifting gears this winter, Hoyer’s vision was sharp and consistent. He patched holes that were not filled via trade at first base (Hosmer), shortstop (Swanson), center field (Bellinger), catcher (Barnhart) and designated hitter (Mancini). He added free agents Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly to the team’s starting rotation.

There was an emphasis on run prevention: Swanson, Bellinger and Barnhart all are Gold Glove winners, and with Nico Hoerner moving to second base from shortstop to accommodate Swanson, few teams will be better defensively up the middle than the Cubs.

“My smile just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Hendricks said.

By design, most of the deals are short so as not to block the paths of key minor league prospects. Bellinger, Hosmer and Barnhart are on one-year deals. Mancini got a two-year deal. Of the position players, only Swanson (seven years, $177 million) is signed long-term.

Staying put in Chicago had benefits beyond dollars for Swanson: In December he married soccer star Mallory Swanson (formerly Pugh) who plays for the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“Probably the best way to sum it up is that we felt this is where we were called to be, to spend the next seven years of our life together,” Swanson said. “And we’re excited to see what’s in store for us.”

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