No, not everyone agrees, and I think we have to be careful to distinguish between “pretty decent” and “overwhelmingly awesome.” But it seems like most observers can see what the Cubs have done this offseason as moving things forward in a positive direction.
To that end, I think Jeff Passan put it in a very fair and evenhanded way today when joining others who’ve identified the Cubs has having a “sneaky” good offseason:
The Sneaky-Big Step Forward Award goes to: As hard as it might be to believe, the Cubs have spent more than $300 million this winter and signed more new players than any other team. (Though the Mets signed more free agents, three of them were rejoining the team — seven of Chicago’s eight signings played elsewhere last year.) Chicago spread around its wealth, too: About half that money went to shortstop Dansby Swanson and the rest to a center fielder, catcher, a couple starting pitchers and some relief help. Chicago was actively bad last year. It should be far less so this year, especially when you look at what the rest of the National League Central has — or rather hasn’t — done. Milwaukee might have landed a coup in a trade, acquiring All-Star catcher William Contreras for prospect Esteury Ruiz, but the Brewers have been the second-lowest-spending team in free agency, a winter tradition in Milwaukee. St. Louis didn’t lose much, but aside from Contreras’ brother, Willson, signing a five-year deal, the Cardinals didn’t gain a whole lot either. Are the Cubs going to win the division? Probably not. Is their opportunity to compete real? Much more real than a couple months back.
That seems like the right perspective, and more or less the one we’ve been holding in mind around here. The Cubs have made progress on the farm, and showed some progress at the big league level in the second half last year. But the big league roster had so many obvious holes, and was so far from realistic contention, that improving this offseason was both imperative and doable. The Cubs simply had to get more decent players. Sometimes, an offseason directive isn’t that complicated.
To their credit, the Cubs have gotten more decent players. They have improved at multiple spots, while arguably stepping back at only one (and that spot, catcher, is a place where the Cubs have wanted a different type of pure-run-prevention-focused skillset in the first place). The 2023 Cubs are, on paper, quite a bit better than the 2022 squad was at this time last year.
Are they an 85-win team on paper? (Which was, I thought, where they needed to be after the offseason (admitting all along that it would take a VERY productive offseason to get there).) I don’t think so. Not quite. They would’ve needed at least one more truly impactful bat to get there, rather than more complementary types. Not to say guys like Eric Hosmer and Trey Mancini don’t raise the floor from where things were last year at first base – they do, which says a lot about 2022 … – but they aren’t going to add several more wins to the ledger. With the right final addition in the bullpen, I could maybe talk myself into saying this is an 82-win roster on paper (i.e., just above .500). But getting to 85 is probably not in the cards at this point.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a positive offseason, it doesn’t mean the Cubs can’t be competitive this year in the NL Central, and it certainly doesn’t mean the Cubs can’t win 85+ games. It just means they might need to have more pleasant surprises and maybe some more lucky bounces, and they also will need to show that their pitching development infrastructure is just going to keep next-leveling guys throughout the year.