The 2024 calendar reached February, with Cody Bellinger still unsigned. What are the Cubs waiting for?
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
It wasn’t until Feb. 25, 2016 — five days after pitchers and catchers reported, and a week before the first spring-training game — that a jeans-and-high-tops-clad Dexter Fowler strode onto a diamond at the Cubs’ facility in Mesa, Arizona, to the delight of his shocked teammates.
But wait, hadn’t Mr. “You Go, We Go” signed with the Orioles? Apparently not. Cubs newcomer Jason Heyward, an old friend from their teenage years in Georgia, was the first to greet Fowler. Next was Anthony Rizzo with a bear hug and, heard easily over the clapping of the entire squad, a totally stoked, “Holy [expletive]!”
Boom — the Cubs had their center fielder and leadoff man back, one of the key pieces of what turned out to be a World Series puzzle.
Anyway, that’s one way president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer could bring the similarly well-liked Cody Bellinger back.
Or maybe Hoyer will let things get even more dramatic and wait for Bellinger to simply give up on receiving any free-agent offers and walk into Cubs camp with a blank contract, a la Andre Dawson in 1987. “The Hawk” — who’d played his entire career with the Expos — didn’t become a Cub until March 9. Eight months later, he was crowned National League MVP.
But Cubs fans aren’t eager for either of those unusual scenarios to play out. They’d much rather see Bellinger back on the Cubs’ roster today, unless yesterday can still be arranged. They well know that even with Bellinger, the Cubs’ lineup is only as good as it was last season, when the team imploded in September and missed the playoffs. They see good players signing elsewhere and time slipping past. They see “February” on the calendar, and it isn’t the only F-word they feel like using.
Meanwhile, waiting to find out if Hoyer is going to succeed or fail in the biggest offseason of his own career is an excruciating ordeal. The offseason of Jed is becoming the offseason of dread. Does Hoyer realize what month it is? Is time merely an imaginary construct in his world? Or a “flat circle,” as Nietzsche described it? Just saying, Nietzsche wasn’t much of a baseball man.
It has been a relatively slow-moving offseason in baseball, but the Cubs were the very last team to get around to adding someone new on a major league deal. And when they did, it was a waiver-wire catcher by the name of — hang on, better Google this one again — Brian Serven. Who? Precisely.
Signing Japanese pitcher Shōta Imanaga and rolling him out at Cubs Convention was a nice moment, but what the fans were chanting daily for then and still are now is Bellinger. On and on, it drags. Bellinger — like most of the remaining big-name free agents, it seems — is represented by super-agent Scott Boras, who tends to approach negotiations with the gentleness and care of Godzilla on the streets of Tokyo. But Hoyer has to be ruthless, too. It’s why he makes the big bucks.
“We loved having [Bellinger],” Hoyer said at Cubs Convention. “We’ve got a great relationship. And we’ll see.”
That was three weeks ago. What are the Cubs waiting for, to see how the South Carolina primaries play out?
It isn’t the normal course of things to take this long. In 2014, for example, the Cubs and pitcher Jon Lester agreed on a franchise-altering six-year, $155 million deal a couple of weeks before Christmas. After years of pinching pennies on payroll, the Cubs suddenly had the smell of real possibility in the air. A week later, they roped in Lester’s personal catcher, David Ross.
The first week of December in 2015, the Cubs signed free-agent pitcher John Lackey. A few days later, they reached an agreement with soon-to-be World Series MVP Ben Zobrist. A few days after that, they went in huge on outfielder Jason Heyward. Epstein seemed to be crushing it. Three-time All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro was out of the plans. Cubs fans rang in the new year and counted down to Mesa with a sense of complete clarity about where the team was.
The signing of star pitcher Yu Darvish didn’t happen until Feb. 10, 2018, but that offseason was one of baseball’s oddest in recent memory. Collusion among owners — or whatever it was — ground the free-agent market to a halt, driving new contracts way down and pushing everything way back on the calendar. There’s no such explanation this time.
Cubs fans must miss the roiling rhythm of last offseason, when the team signed Bellinger to a one-year deal nice and early, on Dec. 14. About a week later, they’d signed pitcher Jameson Taillon and were introducing their biggest fish — shortstop Dansby Swanson — to the media at Wrigley Field.
That was exciting. This is more like torture. All Cubs fans want is another “Holy [expletive]!” moment. Those never come a minute too soon.