Cubs Leaning Heavily on Defense, Chemistry as Means to Raise Performance Floor

No one outside the Cubs organization is predicting them to be favorites in the NL Central, let alone the league as a whole, and even the front office has to admit the team as constructed isn’t built to win big. What we are seeing, however, is a strategy centered around raising the team’s performance floor rather than vaulting its ceiling. Instead of a three-flat, they’re a ranch with a finished basement. Or at least that’s what Jed Hoyer seems to be hoping.

Dansby Swanson, the consensus fourth-best shortstop of this winter’s middle infield quartet, is the clearest example of that plan. While Carlos Correa sits in limbo awaiting either a new agreement with the Mets or possibly his third deal with a new team in the last month, Swanson is spending his offseason calling through the roster to get to know his new teammates.

“With team chemistry, there was always a saying that good teams hang out together,” Swanson told the media during his introductory press conference. “It’s just kind of setting that precedent now and wanting to chat and genuinely get to know your teammates and the people you’re going to be strapping it up with every day. That means a lot to me. It’s something that can help this organization thrive going forward.”

Tucker Barnhart was a far less heralded addition than Swanson and probably wasn’t even among the top four catching options, at least not according to most Cubs fans. The Cubs themselves had initially prioritized Christian Vázquez before the former Red Sox backstop opted to join the Twins. Pivoting to Barnhart wasn’t a desperation move, however, as David Ross and his coaching staff love what the two-time Gold Glover and longtime former Reds catcher brings to the table.

Most of that can’t be defined by anything in either traditional box score numbers or advanced metrics because, and I know this may be an antiquated notion, catching is still as much art as science. Barnhart’s performance in Detroit this past season left a lot to be desired, but he bounced back from that late and now has a little more security with what he feels is a much better overall situation.

Like Swanson, Barnhart expressed a desire to create bonds with both his pitchers and Yan Gomes, his catching partner, to create a seamless unit.

“For catchers, part of our job is being a psychologist in a way,” Barnhart explained during his presser. “When I go to the mound, I’m most likely going to talk to Marcus Stroman differently than how I’m going to say something to Kyle Hendricks, and differently from Kyle Hendricks to Jameson Taillon. Everybody ticks differently. We have to know that.

“We have to get to know those guys from a personal level first and then it trickles down from there. The ultimate compliment that I can get from a pitcher is that they trust me. There are so many things that go into that. They know that I’m prepared. They know that Yan and I are on the same page.”

Since the Cubs were either unwilling or unable to take the necessary steps to add the offensive firepower they so desperately needed, they’ve leaned heavily into a different form of risk management. Just as scoring more runs removes risk from the game, allowing fewer runs provides additional margin for error. Upgrading the pitching staff and putting together what could be the best up-the-middle defense in the league is a great place to start.

There’s also the matter of adding loads of veteran leadership in Swanson, Barnhart, and Taillon, the latter of whom is apparently an 80-grade teammate. Though team chemistry shouldn’t be looked at as a foundational building block, it can’t be dismissed as a legitimate factor. In the Cubs’ case, that might be less about creating wins and more about preventing losses.

Over the past few years, the Cubs have run hot and cold on emotional currents that far too often left them stranded in the horse latitudes. Instead of adding more oarsmen, Hoyer threaded his needle and set about tailoring his ship’s sails to better catch whatever wind they can find. I don’t particularly care for that plan because I don’t think it’s one the Chicago By-God Cubs should ever need to employ, but I wasn’t consulted as a part of the process.

Any Mariners “bloggers” out there can feel free to use some form of this analogy and I won’t even ask for attribution because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

There would be times when you could almost see that the team was about to fall into one of those deep funks where it felt like they might never win another game. Maybe it’s revisionist history, but I swear it was as though the color and volume on the broadcast was turned down at points, the players just looked that blah. The lack of offense may make it difficult to rattle off a bunch of Ws in a row, but Hoyer and Co. apparently believe a combination of pitching, defense, and leadership will keep the Cubs from face-planting as frequently.

Rather than Victoria’s Secret, they’re going with Hanes or Fruit of the Loom. Whatever brand of underpants when throws on, we just have to hope Hoyer doesn’t end up showing his ass.

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