Evaluating the Cubs’ offseason, from most improved to most pressing questions

Pitchers and catchers are set for their first official spring training workout on Wednesday.

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Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki works out during last year’s spring training.

Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki works out during last year’s spring training.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Cubs players already have begun to descend upon Mesa, Arizona, and pitchers and catchers are set for their first official spring-training workout Wednesday. The first full-squad workout is the following week.

The Cubs still could add supplemental pieces to their roster, but most of the offseason work is done.

“This team is going to be really competitive,” left fielder Ian Happ said during the Cubs Convention last month. “Everybody says that at this time of year, but you can see a way that we can win a lot of baseball games.

“This team can pitch it. There’s a lot of defense there. And I think there’s underrated bats — I really do.”

Happ’s glowing review won’t truly be tested until the regular season, but this spring will provide the first glimpses of a new-look Cubs squad. Between the abundance of players hoping to make an impression and MLB’s partnership with the World Baseball Classic, there’s plenty of promise for plenty of players.

The Cubs extended 32 big-league camp invitations to non-roster players, including standout prospects Matt Mervis and Pete Crow-Armstrong. Familiar faces such as David Bote, Mark Leiter Jr. and Manuel Rodriguez also return as non-roster invitees.

Approaching spring training, the Cubs aren’t the favorite in the National League Central — the Cardinals still hold that distinction. But four months after finishing the 2022 season with a 74-88 record, they at least look like a team that could challenge for a playoff spot.

Most improved: Defense

The Cubs’ most notable acquisitions are geared toward run prevention, especially strengthening the defense up the middle.

Shortstop Dansby Swanson, the biggest signing (seven years, $177 million), won a Gold Glove last year. With the addition of Swanson, Nico Hoerner moves from shortstop to second base after proving himself at both positions.

The Cubs added former MVP Cody Bellinger — who was tied for third among NL center fielders in outs above average (six) — on a pillow contract. They also fortified the rotation with right-hander Jameson Taillon.

For good measure, they added veteran catcher Tucker Barnhart to pair with fellow defense-first catcher Yan Gomes.

“It’s not the coolest, most highlight-reel thing to see every day, but pitching and defense wins games,” Barnhart said in his introductory news conference, adding that the Cubs’ emphasis on those aspects of the game attracted him in free agency.

Work in progress: Bullpen

The Cubs have gone through a familiar process this winter, signing relievers mostly to short-term contracts or minor-league deals with spring-training invites, then turning them over to the pitching infrastructure with the faith that several of them will perform above projections. During the rebuild, the Cubs would then trade those players around midseason, helping to strengthen their farm system.

Recent years have provided proof that the formula works. But that doesn’t mean they want to keep repeating it.

The Cubs’ most notable bullpen additions this offseason have been right-handers Brad Boxberger and Michael Fulmer (whose deal is pending a physical). They help fill holes left from the trade deadline last year. On the 40-man roster, homegrown pitcher Brandon Hughes is the only left-handed reliever. If the Cubs play well enough in the first half of the season, they could be buyers come late July.

“My hope is that over the next two or three years, those guys are all coming out of our [farm] system,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last month when asked about the back end of the bullpen. “That’s the real goal, to provide great stuff in the bullpen that’s also coming, and young guys with options that are a little less expensive.”

Uncertain: Offense

New hitting coach Dustin Kelly won’t be easing in, with the Cubs hoping to climb into contention in his first year on the job.

This offseason, they signed a trio of offensive bounce-back candidates: Bellinger, Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer. Their responses to a change of scenery could swing the Cubs’ potential either way — proving or disproving Happ’s claim of the team’s “underrated bats.”

Swanson is expected to provide a boost. Development from Seiya Suzuki and Christopher Morel, each entering his second MLB season, also could make a difference. But the Cubs also lost one of their best hitters, Willson Contreras. There’s no guarantee of significant year-over-year improvement at the plate. But it’s not out of the question.

“It’s an exciting team, but experience was lacking a bit,” Mancini said of last season. “And especially with the signings we made this offseason and experience that was added, when you have a lot of exciting young talent matched with some of the right veteran guys, that can be a great mix.”

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