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Nico Hoerner sat in the media room at Wrigley Field on Thursday, a little over four hours prior to first pitch on Opening Day, ready to talk to the local media.
Hoerner, whose three-year, $35 million extension became official Wednesday, talked at length about how excited he was to know he’s locked in through the 2026 season — along with, of course, his desire to remain in Chicago beyond the end of his new contract.
“I’m just so happy that we were able to come to terms and that it’s here. It’s an incredible thing to experience,” Hoerner said. “I hope it’s not the last deal with this team. This is where I want to be.
There was somewhat of a caveat to that, though.
Hoerner is someone who, above all, wants to win. He appreciates the team investing in him. At the same time, being apart of a club focused on building a winner mattered, too. So, all things considered, if he didn’t see a path to winning for the Cubs, he may not have opted to give up his first year of free agency this early.
“The idea of extending yourself in an organization where you probably didn’t see winning on the horizon, that’s not very attractive to me,” Hoerner said. “So yes, it is a vote of confidence in the direction that the team is going. We are still fully creating that identity. I can’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to win this and that game, and then next year it’ll be this.’ That’s not how our game works, but I do feel confident in the direction that we’re going. I got to see some of the younger guys in spring, and I trust this front office. I feel really good about that.”
A 4-0 Opening Day victory over the Brewers doesn’t mean this team is a World Series contender. The Cubs are relying on some youngsters to continue to develop and some veterans looking for bounce-back campaigns. On paper, this team probably isn’t as talented as the ones it’ll be competing with for a playoff spot (FanGraphs gives them just an 11.2 percent chance to make the postseason, for what it’s worth).
But with Opening Day comes renewed optimism that a competitive season is ahead. That’s especially true for a team that, despite coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons, committed a lot of money over the winter to players they believe can get them back to winning.
“Every team starts with the same record,” Trey Mancini said. “So I think for all 30 teams, there’s a lot of hope and new energy that’s brought about on Opening Day.”
If winning is going to happen in 2023, though, there are a few players who’ll have to lead the way.
Dansby Swanson, after signing a seven-year, $177 million deal, should have high expectations placed on him. But Swanson also expects a lot from himself and his teammates. He’s been a part of a winning organization coming off a seven-year run with the Braves, so he knows what needs to be done to get to that level.
And yes, he’ll be a big part of that over the next 161 games. Fortunately for the Cubs, his 3-for-4 showing with what would eventually be the game-winning RBI — to go with his normal dependable defense at shortstop — on Thursday showed in a nutshell how valuable he’ll be for this club.
On the position player side, he’ll have to set the tone if the team hopes to compete deep into the year.
“I think the biggest thing is we have a lot of great baseball players,” Swanson said. “We have a lot of guys that want to play the game, want to do it the right way, want to do anything we can to win. At the end of the day, the winning stat is the most important stat. However we get there is however we get there. We have a lot of guys that are really out to kind of prove the narrative that we’re a winning team, that we have a bunch of good pieces, a bunch of good players, and that this organization can get back to where everyone wants it to be.”
On the pitching side, there’s a reason the Cubs gave Marcus Stroman the ball on Opening Day.
He has a strong track record, and he showed how productive he can be during the second half of 2022. The Cubs don’t have that superstar starting pitcher on the roster, but Stroman is a former All-Star who they feel comfortable deploying as their No. 1 guy.
Like Swanson, Stroman is going to be the tone setter for this pitching staff. Which is why it was so important for him to go out and do what he did against the Brewers. He did allow three hits and three walks, but he executed when he had to and finished the day with six shutout innings. He also struck out eight batters (his most in an outing since last May).
As far as tone-setting performances go, the Cubs could hardly have asked for a stronger one from Stroman to start the year. Now, it’s up to the whole team to follow his lead moving forward.
“I had all the confidence and faith coming into this season, because I knew the group of guys we had last year,” Stroman said. “We played really good baseball at the end of last year, and then we added a bunch of guys — Dansby, obviously [Cody Bellinger], Trey [Mancini], [Jameson] Taillon — so I knew we were going to be in a great position to go out there and win games. I don’t have a single ounce of doubt in this team. I’m just excited to go out there and show people what we could do.”
Beyond those two, guys like Hoerner, Bellinger, Mancini and Ian Happ will be key pieces to any offensive success the Cubs have. And pitchers like Justin Steele, Hayden Wesneski, Keegan Thompson and Adbert Alzolay will obviously factor into a pitching staff that should be a strength for this club.
Nobody in the Cubs organization will ever come and say they don’t expect to win, especially not after two seasons that nearly had the fan base up in arms. Still, it feels like this team genuinely believes in its ability to compete in a winnable National League Central.
That’s the expectation for the Cubs. The Opening Day victory was obviously a great start, but to truly compete over the course of the season, the performances they got from most of the roster on Thursday will have to be a consistent occurrence.
“I think the thing that I expect is us to go out and compete every single day to the best of our ability, play hard for one another,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “The talent takes care of itself, but the expectation is to come in every single day, give ourselves a chance to win and look up at the end and see if that’s the case.”
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