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Cubs finally get the new 'core' on the field for the first time

Ryan Herrera Avatar
April 15, 2023

The Cubs have their new “core” in place for at least three more seasons after 2023.

Ian Happ’s surprise extension for $61 million over three years runs through 2026. Nico Hoerner’s three-year, $35 million extension signed just before Opening Day ends the same year. Seiya Suzuki’s five-year, $85 million deal does, too. And Dansby Swanson’s seven-year, $177 million mega-deal will keep him around through 2029. If you want to name a “Core Four” as the roster is currently constructed, that’s it.

No, it’s not be the best “core” out there. Right now, none of those players are generally considered to be in that upper echelon of stars in Major League Baseball. And well, these guys have only taken the field together for one total game.

They didn’t come up in the minors together. They didn’t play together in any Cactus League games during spring training. With Suzuki missing the Cubs’ first 11 games of the year, it wasn’t until Friday night that these four suited up at the same time.

Still, that didn’t stop the front office from seeing these four as a foundation to build on over the next few seasons. Here’s what’s been said about each of them by the Cubs’ brass:

  • Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer on Happ: “He’s just a really good person, a really good teammate. I’ve seen such a change in him in the last year, year and a half in terms of stepping into a leadership role. He became one of the more veteran guys here and really embraced that. His preparation to play is outstanding, both from a physical preparation everyday routine, but also in that he does everything you can think of to try to win a game.”
  • Hoyer on Hoerner: “I think the world of Nico. He’s such a great kid, such great makeup, works hard every day. It would’ve been a shame not to be able to sign him. We worked through a million structures and finally came up with that. I’m glad it worked out, and honestly, I hope it’s the first of many with him.”
  • Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts on Swanson: “Dansby, in addition to his great makeup, a good teammate and someone that everyone to a man says, ‘He’s a good guy to have on your squad.’ We looked at him as someone who is a great defender and a pretty good offensive player but likely to stay at shortstop for as long as the contract … He was the best fit for us all along.”
  • Hoyer, last spring, on Suzuki: “We’ve talked a lot about building the next great Cubs team. We signed Seiya to a five-year contract, because we believe he’ll play a significant role in that success now and that success in the future.”

Happ and Swanson are both coming off years in which they earned their first All-Star nods and first Gold Glove Awards. Hoerner was a Gold Glove finalist at second base three years ago, and as he continues to develop, you can see the All-Star potential. Suzuki was a five-time All-Star and a five-time Golden Glove Award winner in Nippon Professional Baseball before joining the Cubs. It’s obviously a talented group.

But again, these four have only played one game together so far.

Getting Suzuki back doesn’t necessarily have the impact of a superstar NFL quarterback getting his top receiver back from injury or an NBA All-Star rejoining a title contender. Baseball is too individualized of a sport for one player alone to change a team’s fortunes. But with him in the fold, the Cubs got to see how the four looked filling up the top spots in the lineup. They got to see how the four looked filling up the corner-outfield and middle-infield positions.

Finally, the Cubs got to see their new core together in action. And it was a memorable night for most of them.

Happ went 4-for-4 with two doubles, a home run, a walk, a stolen base and three RBIs. Each of his hits had exit velocities of at least 103 mph, making him one of two players with at least four hits at 103 mph or more in a single game in 2023 (per Statcast). Suzuki, in his first game back from a 10-day injured list stint with a left oblique strain, followed up Happ’s home run with his first of the year. Hoerner was 1-for-4 but swiped two more bags, putting him into a three-way tie for first place with seven stolen bases this season.

Swanson, though had a night he’d like to forget, at least at the plate. He was still his dependable self at shortstop, but he struck out all five times he went up to bat against the Dodgers. He’d struck out four times in a game only four times before, which meant the five-strikeout showing Friday night was arguably the worst offensive performance of his career.

Regardless, it’s only one night. What each of them did in their first game together won’t be what defines them. What matters is what they do the rest of this year and the rest of their time together. Does this group lead to any more winning before the contracts are up? That’s ultimately the only question that needs answering.

“The one thing that stands out to me about the group we’ve got and the guys that are here for a long time is just, like, they’re hard workers, they’re culture setters,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “Their expectations are to get better at all times, and so that’s a really big pickup for a guy in my seat that the expectations are coming from that room and not from me.”

There’s also the fact that just because this is the “core” now, that doesn’t mean they’ll ultimately be the best the Cubs have to offer. There will be chances for them to add a left-handed slugger, and there will be chances for them to add an ace-type pitcher (or, you know, they could add the one player who checks off both boxes). So, if you’re not convinced these four are good enough together, bigger moves could still be in store.

But when you think about a core, you think about the building blocks. Core players are the ones that stick around for a long time and lead a team down the path toward winning.

The Cubs’ last “Core Four” ultimately turned out to be Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Willson Contreras (at least in this writer’s mind). Even though others might’ve contributed more at different points during that run, it ended up being that for a majority of that era, winning teams were built around them.

That’s not an attempt to compare the new core with the old core. Rizzo, Bryant, Báez and Contreras had a combined 12 All-Star games, five Gold Gloves, two Silver Sluggers and one MVP award. Happ, Swanson, Hoerner and Suzuki don’t have nearly that many accolades.

But what they do have is an organization that believes in them as the pieces to build around. They’re the ones who were worth investing in. When the Cubs think about a future winning ballclub, it starts with Happ, Swanson, Hoerner and Suzuki.

Will that ultimately lead to Hoyer’s “Next Great Cubs Team”? Nobody knows. But for now, the Cubs believe they’ve got a core who can keep them moving in the right direction for the next few years.

“I don’t know exactly how Rossy is going to make up the lineup card,” Hoyer said, “but you can see a situation where those top four guys in the lineup are all guys that are all prime age, they’re all signed at least through 2026. I’m really thrilled to have that stability.”

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