Spring training returns for Cubs: How ‘cautious optimism’ turned into a ‘happy dance’

The Cubs’ Sloan Park complex welcomed 40-man-roster players for the first time this spring, the day after MLB ended the lockout.

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Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman arrives at the Cubs Sloan Park facility. He was one of a dozen Cubs players who reported to spring training Friday.

Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman arrives at the Cubs Sloan Park facility. He was one of a dozen Cubs players who reported to spring training Friday.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs manager David Ross was shopping for dresses when he got the news that baseball was coming back.

He and teenage daughter Landri had a function coming up, so he took her to the mall Thursday. That’s when the players’ union voted to accept the owners’ latest proposal and the owners ratified the new collective-bargaining agreement.

Landri went into the dressing room to try on some options, and Ross started shooting off individual texts to each of his players.

“Willson Contreras texted me back, like, two seconds later,” Ross recounted Friday. “He’s ready to go. I think all these guys are ready to go.”

Finally, after a 99-day lockout, MLB managers and coaches could contact their players, front offices could sign free agents and spring-training facilities could welcome back major-leaguers.

On Friday morning, players on the Cubs’ 40-man roster began to trickle into the Sloan Park complex. They included pitchers Marcus Stroman, Kyle Hendricks, Justin Steele and Manuel Rodriguez, outfielder Ian Happ, second baseman Nick Madrigal and infielder Nico Hoerner.

Happ, the team’s union rep, was the players’ connection to the collective-bargaining process.

He broke the news to many of them Thursday with a message to the group chat: We got the vote.

“I proceeded to do my happy dance,” Steele said.

Happ, on the other hand, took a deep breath.

“For the first time in six months,” he added.

Happ came into the week with “cautious optimism,” he said. But that had been the case for several weeks, and an agreement had remained elusive.

As the process went on, Happ canvassed his teammates on collective-bargaining issues with the help of pitcher Scott Efross. This week, several Cubs praised Happ’s diligence in keeping them informed.

“We were able to have a really good sense going into yesterday of where we stood,” Happ said, “and then just able to check in kind of in the final hours to make sure everybody was on board. And we were all together on it.”

Happ cast his vote in favor of accepting MLB’s proposal. He said he was most proud of the progress made on compensation for younger players.

“I think that speaks volumes to the unity of our group and how we feel the game is trending,” Happ said.

The new CBA raised minimum salaries from $570,500 in 2021 to $700,000, with increases over the course of the agreement up to $780,000 in 2026. It also created a pre-arbitration bonus pool of $50 million for top performers. Young players took notice.

“For me and for people that aren’t at this level yet, it means a lot,” Hoerner told the Sun-Times this week. “And there’s so much talent in this game, it’s a shame to be missing time [in spring training]. But knowing that it’s for a good reason, it’s well worth it.”

There are still a few wrinkles to iron out.

Though the CBA sets a 26-player roster limit (28 in September), with a max of 13 pitchers (14 in September), early-season roster expansion remains a possibility. Asked if he thought expanded rosters were needed to start the season, Happ said, “We’ll see.”

“We had an example of it in 2020 that probably helped,” he said. “Definitely from the pitching perspective, to make sure guys are healthy, there’s an argument for it.”

Teams have waded into the free-agent market not knowing exactly what the rules will look like to start the season. Notable signings Friday included pitchers Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers) and Carlos Rodon (Giants).

With their first post-lockout move later that afternoon, the Cubs agreed to a one-year deal with shortstop Andrelton Simmons,

Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins could be spotted zipping through the spring-training complex in a golf cart. But mostly they were in their offices, making calls and deals.

“You want to get guys in camp as quickly as you can,” Hoyer said before the first reports of Simmons’ signing broke. “Not all those deals are going to come together right away, but that’s certainly the goal.”

This will be a more hectic spring training than most. But the excitement was palpable. Baseball is back.

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