Signing Dansby Swanson to anchor the middle infield was a big step in the right direction for a Cubs team that had previously only been shuffling, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover between here and competitiveness. Try as he might, the new shortstop can’t simply will his team to victory, at least not on a regular basis. But Swanson heard enough from the front office to believe there’s a plan in place to ensure he’s got plenty of help.
A common theme emerged right from the start of Swanson’s introductory press conference on Wednesday, and it continued throughout the proceedings. Okay, the first theme was actually more emotional in nature as he explained why being a Cub meant so much to him. Swanson shared that his late grandfather, who passed away the day after his wedding earlier in the month, was always watching Cubs games on WGN on spring and summer afternoons.
What seemed odd to him as a young boy eventually grew into something bigger and now means getting the chance to win with both his hometown team and his grandfather’s adoptive second-favorite franchise. Between that and his wife, Mallory Pugh, playing for the Chicago Red Stars, the Cubs had a leg up on the competition from the start. That doesn’t mean it was fait accompli, as Swanson wanted assurances that things would continue to move in the right direction.
“It was a lot about understanding what the team was going to look like, what the philosophy of the organization is,” Swanson explained. “The plans to win, how to win. Everyone wants to win, every team has a philosophy to want to win and everyone desires to win. And a lot of teams you can tell just kinda say that. After having multiple conversations and a pretty long call with Carter, I really got the gist that what it actually means to this city and this organization to win.
“I felt that and it’s something I want to be a part of, something I wanted to help build. I feel like God gave me some unique leadership skills and just the ability to get the most out of other people, and it just felt like that’s something they really valued.”
The Cubs do appear to be valuing character and leadership with their additions so far, much like how they did when signing Jon Lester and Jason Heyward. Many have compared Swanson to that other former Brave, and not in a good way, though the motivations behind their signings are similar. In both cases, offensive production is gravy for the meat and potatoes of elite defense and being glue guys, for lack of a better term. While Heyward’s trouble at the plate hurts his legacy as a player with the Cubs, his value as a teammate was unassailable.
Like Lester, Swanson brings with him the pedigree of performing on the biggest stage and understanding what it takes to reach the ultimate goal. That’s important for a team that has now parted ways with all but one member of the 2016 World Series roster.
“Winning starts with the mentality,” Swanson said. “It starts with the belief each and every day that you’re not showing up wanting to win, you’re showing up that you’re going to win. It’s never a matter of ‘if,’ it’s just a matter of ‘when.’
“And then when you start to win, it really starts to build confidence in the organization; it starts to build confidence within your teammates. Winning baseball is really just about playing the game to win. I know it sounds super cliché, but there are so many times and examples where you can tell like, ‘Oh, this guy is doing this for himself.’ Or, ‘He was wanting to do this to get the RBI instead of moving the runner or whatever.’”
I think it’s pretty easy to read or listen to what Swanson is saying here and tie it back to the post-2016 Cubs. That isn’t a matter of calling anyone out individually, but there was sort of a sense that achieving that ultimate success left a few players and maybe even the organization as a whole somewhat rudderless. I’m not sure what Sisyphus did when he finally got the boulder to the top of the mountain safely, but I’m guessing he took his sweet-ass time enjoying the view before putting any effort toward trudging back down.
While star players dealt with incessant trade rumors because extension talks either didn’t happen or weren’t productive, the front office failed to adequately round out the roster. Ownership scaled back spending after 2018 as well, effectively moving the goalposts after many assumed money would be there for Bryce Harper. So as Wrigleyville continued to be modernized and reimagined, the Cubs themselves were being slowly razed to make way for a new team.
We can debate the merits of the process all day long, all that matters is what’s happening right now and what still needs to happen.
“The important goal is winning. That’s like the only stat that matters. Bringing that sort of philosophy is really, really important. It’s important to get all the guys to buy into, which they will. That’s just who we are at our core. And who I believe that we’ll be moving forward.”
Ah, the core, that somewhat nebulous concept of a foundational group of players around which a roster is built. I know Swanson is speaking more about individual motivation, but all the want-to in the world means nothing if there isn’t enough talent to put it into action. And when it comes to the Cubs, they still don’t have what looks like a competitive roster at this point.
That can’t be solved by merely waiting on prospects to mature, so Hoyer needs to keep working to add players who fill remaining gaps. And he needs to make decisions elsewhere on the 40-man roster to clear space for those gap-fillers. We’re going to see a lot of moves yet, the first of which is probably adding Tucker Barnhart to split time with Yan Gomes. Michael Conforto would have supplied the lefty power the Cubs so desperately need, but he just joined a Giants team even more desperate to add someone, anyone.
The Cubs could actually have been pretty interesting this season with the right series of moves and maybe they still can be, but the path to winning gets narrower each day.