Smyly return, Taillon addition boost Cubs' pitching depth


Have the Cubs reassembled a division contender, with nearly two months left before spring training?

At least a division-contending rotation and fielding lineup?

Two years after starting an ownership-driven, payroll-slashing teardown of a 2020 NL Central champ, the Cubs have committed almost $300 million in contracts for major-league free agents in the last two weeks alone.

In fact, with the long-expected news that left-handed starter Drew Smyly has agreed to a two-year, $19 million deal to return, the Cubs have retained every pitcher who contributed to the rotation’s second-half ERA of 2.89 — minus the four starts (16 innings) by Wade Miley.

Along the way, they added well regarded veteran Jameson Taillon on a four-year, $68 million contract.

Considering three-time Opening Day starter Kyle Hendricks also is back (assuming he’s not traded) after sitting out with a second-half shoulder injury, the Cubs have another potential impact addition on tap.

Combine that with the additions of former Gold Glove winners Dansby Swanson at shortstop Cody Bellinger to play centerfield and Tucker Barnhart to back up catcher Yan Gomes, and if everything goes according to best-laid plans, all that’s left is figuring out how to score about 50 or 60 more runs than last year.

If nothing else, it looks at least like a $290.8-million start to mission accomplished when it comes Jed Hoyer’s run-prevention ambitions this offseason — with six free agents in the $177 million Swanson, $17.5 million Bellinger, $6.5 million Barnhart, $2.8 million reliever Brad Boxberger and the starters Taillon and Smyly.

Not that Hoyer has focused solely on that, he said, or that he’s necessarily done — especially when it comes to the bullpen and bats.

“I do think that pitching and defense is incredibly important,” he said. “I think we have a chance to play really clean games. That said, I would never minimize the value of offense. Having sort of a philosophy and only sticking to that one thing — when I look at my career, we won in Boston [in 2004, 2007] by bludgeoning people and playing 4-hour baseball games; we won in 2016 with one of the best defensive teams of all-time. There’s a lot of ways to skin the cat.”

Shoring up an overall defense that played more like a sieve at times than the tight 2016 team is one of the most reliable, slump-proof ways to improve a team.

Especially when the top rival in the division, defending-champ St. Louis, is one of the best defensive teams in the league.

“Obviously, the defensive side is huge,” said Swanson, the NL’s reigning Gold Glove shortstop. “I don’t think people completely understand run prevention is a really, really big deal. Makes your pitchers better. And obviously each run becomes that much more meaningful.

“It’s a race to 27 outs, and whoever can get them the fastest usually wins the game.”

To that end, here’s how the Cubs’ defensive lineup looks with a week left in 2022 (bold indicates additions; asterisks indicate number of career Gold Gloves):

  • Catchers — Yan Gomes, Tucker Barnhart**
  • First base — Patrick Wisdom/Matt Mervis
  • Second base — Nico Hoerner
  • Third base — Patrick Wisdom
  • Shortstop — Dansby Swanson*
  • Left field — Ian Happ*
  • Centerfield — Cody Bellinger*
  • Right field — Seiya Suzuki

“I think it’s headed in the right direction,” Nico Hoerner said this week when asked how the team looks with the changes since its 74-win finish. “We’ve got everyday players up the middle of the field paired with a lot of starting pitching depth. That’s two really big parts of winning during the regular season.”

Starting pitching depth? Cubs starters under contract for 2023 (or club control in the case of pre-arbitration Steele and Wesneski), with free agent signings in bold:

  • RH Marcus Stroman
  • RH Jameson Taillon
  • LH Justin Steele
  • LH Drew Smyly
  • RH Kyle Hendricks
  • RH Adrian Sampson
  • RH Hayden Wesneski

“The idea of a five-man rotation and sticking to that for a season is not a realistic thing,” Hoerner said. “You need at least seven or eight guys. It’s pretty cool to look up and down that rotation and see guys that you can trust.

RELATED: What Nico Hoerner says about Dansby Swanson signing

Whether it’s all good enough to catch the Cardinals is far from certain, even if everybody stays healthy.

But nobody can accuse the Cubs of not making a bona fide effort to build a respectable, even competitive, roster this winter — even if some fans wanted to see top-of-the-market types Carlos Correa, Carlos Rodón or even Aaron Judge in Cubs uniforms next April.

“Putting together the defense that we currently have is pretty special,” Swanson said. “And I feel like the offensive part will just continue to come. We’ve got guys that are growing in their own offensive styles, and you add a guy like Belli, who’s obviously had a lot of success in the past, [with] a guy like Nico who I’ve always loved watching him play — I’ve always said, ‘Man, that guy can really just hit’ — and obviously Seiya. …

RELATED: Why Bellinger could be Cubs' most important signing in 2023

“You start to look at it, and you say, ‘This is a pretty good team, with the right trajectory of going in the right direction.

“I’m just excited to get going and looking forward to what’s ahead.”

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