‘Not a finished product’: Measuring the Cubs’ improvement so far this offseason

The additions of Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon, Cody Bellinger and others have undoubtedly made the Cubs better. The question is, exactly how much have those signings changed the Cubs’ 2023 outlook?

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New Cubs right-hander Jameson Taillon put forward a compelling piece of evidence: “I don’t think [Dansby Swanson] would’ve picked Chicago if he wasn’t convinced that we could build a winner and get back to that level.”

That’s the kind of impact Swanson already has made. Not only does his signing undoubtedly make the team better, but it sends a message about the Cubs’ vision. It’s not nearly as loud as Mets owner Steve Cohen’s commitment of over $806 million to free agents already this offseason, but the deal was still heard across the league.

If Swanson, who won the World Series in 2021 and said the word “win” three dozen times in his introductory news conference, believes in the Cubs’ plan to climb back into contention, they must be getting close, right?

The Cubs have improved this month, signing Swanson, Taillon, center fielder Cody Bellinger and reliever Brad Boxberger. They reportedly agreed to terms with catcher Tucker Barnhart, and a source confirmed they have a deal in place to bring back left-hander Drew Smyly.

The question is, exactly how much have those signings changed the Cubs’ 2023 outlook and what other big-name additions are on the horizon?

Swanson, naturally, declined to go into detail about the team-building plans the Cubs shared with him, and the club has been known to be quite specific in those conversations. When they courted Jon Lester, he later revealed that pursuing Jason Heyward was part of their pitch.

“They definitely have a clear plan for what they want to do, the types of people, the types of players that they want to bring on board,” Swanson said. “I feel like the first step is fully building a winning culture. You’ve got to show everybody that you want to win and that you’re going to win, and then people really start to buy into that vision.”

The Cubs’ biggest improvement has been their defense up the middle. They might have the best defensive middle-infield duo in the majors in Swanson and second baseman Nico Hoerner. Bellinger, a 2019 Gold Glover, extends that prowess into center field. Yan Gomes and Barnhart are defense-first catchers.

Offensively, the Cubs still have holes and questions.

Swanson is expected to provide an offensive boost. He slashed .277/.329/.447 last year, his first All-Star season. And he’s committed to improving every year.

“My biggest thing now is just a little bit more of the average piece,” Swanson said, “the swing and miss in [the strike] zone, which has led to, obviously, more strikeouts than I would like.”

Swanson alone can’t change the makeup of the offense. The Cubs were lacking power last season, then they lost Willson Contreras, one of their best hitters, to free agency.

It’s unclear how Bellinger will respond to a change of scenery and a normal, healthy offseason. The Cubs are expecting internal improvement as players such as Seiya Suzuki get more familiar with big-league pitching. But not every player is going to put together a career year at the same time. The Cubs could add another bat by looking to the corner infield positions.

Expect the team to add more pitching. As goes the adage president of baseball operation Jed Hoyer often points to, you can never have too much pitching.

The club still needs to round out its bullpen. And while the Cubs made a long-term addition to the rotation by signing Taillon to a four-year deal, Kyle Hendricks’ health leaves uncertainty. They have many pitchers who could thrive at the back end of the rotation, in a swingman role or as depth. But they don’t have the competition at the top that the best rotations do.

“As we talked about the vision that we’re trying to build, we’re not a finished product,” Hoyer said this week. “But we’re definitely better than when we started this offseason.”

NOTE: The Cubs claimed left-hander -Anthony Kay off waivers from the Blue Jays on Friday. To make room for him on the 40-man roster, they designated first baseman Alfonso Rivas for assignment.

Over four seasons, Kay made 28 appearances for Toronto with a 5.48 ERA. He landed with the Blue Jays as one of the two players the Mets traded for right-hander Marcus Stroman, now a Cub, in 2019.

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