Dansby Swanson might be the shiny, new big-ticket star for the Cubs to wish upon.
Cody Bellinger might be their most intriguing upside hope; Justin Steele and Nico Hoerner, the budding, homegrown potential core guys building off strong 2022 seasons.
But the Cub to watch heading into the new year — into a designed Inflection 2023 season — is Hayden Wesneski.
Mostly because he’s the closest pitching prospect to making an impact on the rotation after an impressive September debut last season — for a team that expects to finally start producing homegrown pitching to help sustain its next competitive window.
But also in no small part because of the way he reminds some of us of Jay Buhner (well, maybe one of us).
Buhner, the competitive heart of the Mariners’ first playoff teams in the 1990s featuring Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, used to talk about the distinction of being raised in the Yankees’ farm system before he was traded as a rookie to Seattle for Ken Phelps.
Player development? Sure. “But they expect you to win,” Buhner said.
At every level.
More than three decades since Buhner began to impact the Mariners renaissance under another former Yankee, manager Lou Piniella, the message, ethic and expectation persists in the organization with more championships (27) than anybody else in American major league team sports.
“Oh, yeah. They made it clear from Day 1,” said Wesneski, the right-hander acquired as a Triple-A player from the Yankees for reliever Scott Effross at the August trade deadline.
“We sat down. We had meetings about it. There was a way to go about it.”
A lot of that involved process, he said. And some of the rigid messaging has loosened up even since he was drafted in the sixth round from Sam Houston State in 2019 — such as the part of the dress code that specifically required collared shirts when traveling or otherwise representing the organization off the field.
The important parts didn’t change.
“Don’t be a slob,” he said. “And there’s still a certain way to go about your business.”
And then win.
Wesneski, 25, isn’t ready to make the direct correlation between that minor-league upbringing and his poise and effectiveness during a 33-inning debut that included a 2.18 ERA, a 33-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an especially impressive finish in four starts after earning a rotation spot.
And he certainly doesn’t claim to have the kind of experience to draw the same level of conclusions that Buhner did a generation ago.
But he won in college and carried that into the expectations the Yankees demanded. And so by the time he reached the higher levels of the minors and the big-leagues?
“It does have an effect,” he said.
And it’s no coincidence, Yankees GM Brian Cashman said.
“It’s part of our history. It comes with being a Yankee,” Cashman said. “We don’t even at times have to push it. It’s baked into our history. So any time people are part of that history — like Hayden obviously was — it’s a different atmosphere because of our history.
“We don’t run from it. We certainly shine a light on it and acknowledge it. And, yeah, we speak to it.”
In some ways it’s no different than what any other organization stresses to prospects as they matriculate toward the majors in the cutthroat business of big-league sports.
“The Kansas City Royals or San Diego Padres or whomever are all about winning, too,” Cashman said. “But because they don’t have that history, it creates an automatic narrative, eve if our push is equal to those other teams’ pushes.
“Do we shine a light on it? Of course we do. Do we emphasize it? Of course we do.
“I just think the history aspect of it sets the tone,” he added. “It’s something we’re proud of. It’s something we can’t escape. It’s something I think at least helps propel these guys to be more accountable, to take it more seriously.”
It’s the kind of culture the Cubs promised to build when Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over 11 years ago — and arguably did build until the 2016 core got too expensive without the farm system producing reinforcements, and it was torn asunder during another tanking rebuild.
Not exactly the stuff of “automatic narratives” for winning expectations.
But maybe Swanson, Bellinger, Hoerner, Seiya Suzuki, Marcus Stroman and Jameson Taillon will help at least start the next Cubs competitive process.
And maybe along the way, a guy like Wesneski brings his own process to the table, sets his own quiet tone with his own expectations in his own corner of the clubhouse.
Maybe he even builds on that 2-1, 1.85-ERA performance in those four starts down the stretch, forces his way into the opening rotation and has enough impact help the team turn a competitive corner (if not make noise in the Rookie of the Year conversation).
“Like Michael Jordan said in his documentary: You play to win the game,” Wesneski said. “Just make it simple and have a goal in mind. And don’t make it too complicated.”