The Cubs begin spring training with Cody Bellinger as the free agent still looms over everything

MESA, Ariz. – The Chicago Cubs are back. Cody Bellinger isn't, at least not yet and probably never again. This looked like a regular postcard from the Sloan Park training complex with Kyle Hendricks playing catch, Dansby Swanson running drills on the field, and Shota Imanaga signing autographs. But it can't feel like spring training when the offseason isn't really over.

“There's definitely a lot up in the air for us and a lot of baseball teams right now with the amount of talent that's still out there,” Nico Hoerner said Tuesday.

There was no television crew surrounding Horner when he spoke to a small group of reporters. Perhaps a dozen fans gathered in the fenced-off area near Court 1 to watch practice. Cubs officials traditionally hold a news conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially report to major league camp, but that will instead be held on Wednesday around the pitchers' and catchers' first official workout. The table in the media room was set up with three microphones along with Marquee Sports Network flags for Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, general manager Carter Hawkins and new manager Craig Counsell.

We already saw a version of this at the Cubs convention last month, where GM Tom Ricketts stood on stage while fans chanted “CO-DY!” Ku-di! CO-DY!” The crowd inside the Sheraton Hotel ballroom erupted as Swanson announced: “We've got to re-sign Billy.” Scott Boras represents other free agents who could make sense for the Cubs on some level — like Matt Chapman, Blake Snell, and Jordan Montgomery – But Bellinger is the headline here.

Matt Chapman, a Scott Boras client like Cody Bellinger, could also suit up for the 2024 Cubs. (Photo by Daniel Cherry/MLB via Getty Images)

“I definitely give him his space,” Horner said. “I just hope his process is what he wants and he gets what he deserves. He was everything you could ask for from a teammate. When you talk about coming in early, starting on New Year's (last year), he was very consistent with his work. “It was really satisfying to see someone so good earn such a great spot for himself. Obviously we would love to have him here. It would be amazing.”

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After signing his one-year, $17.5 million “pillow” contract, Bellinger became a starter at the team's facility in Arizona, training near his home in the offseason and working with trusted coaches. Bellinger's production value during the Comeback Player of the Year campaign was $32.9 million, according to FanGraphs' dollar metric. Bellinger's projected stats and batted ball data — combined with freak injuries and a severe downturn he endured earlier in his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers — point to a potential downturn.

These factors, coupled with a patient and skilled negotiator in Boras, left Bellinger without a team in mid-February. Ricketts is not the type of owner who deals with Boras and wants to play GM. Even if Hoyer strikes a deal to re-sign Bellinger, the Cubs will need more players moving forward.

Getting months away from Bellinger performing again at an MVP level is still not enough for the Cubs to qualify for the playoffs as the sixth-best team in the National League. Horner is a good example of organizational patience paying off and a player who runs with opportunity.

Hoerner moved from shortstop to accommodate Swanson and turned himself into a Gold Glove second baseman. Hoerner took advantage of the new rules to become the first Cubs baserunner since Ryne Sandberg to reach 43 stolen bases, 175 hits, 98 runs scored, and 68 RBIs. Horner will turn 27 in May, meaning he should be in the middle of the prime years of his career.

“We have a lot of opportunities to improve from within,” Horner said. “And that includes a lot of us who were there a lot last year. I feel like a lot of us had strong seasons last year, but a lot of us feel like we have more that we can improve on. It's a group that definitely has very high standards.”

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For now, the Cubs appear to be betting that first baseman Michael Bush and outfielder Pete Crowe-Armstrong will learn quickly at the major league level. Starting this season at Double-A Tennessee or higher is the baseline for almost all of the organization's top prospects. The core of the team — Horner, Swanson, Seiya Suzuki and Ian Happ — is built on proven two-way players who can have next-level seasons. A defense that looked exhausted at times during its late-season collapse should learn from that experience. The staff — from opening day starters to the sheer numbers it takes to get through a 162-game schedule — is deep and versatile.

But until the Cubs add Bellinger (or another high-profile Boras prospect), there will be questions about whether Hoyer's front office and Ricketts' ownership group have done enough this winter.

“You always want the best possible version of your team,” Horner said. “As a group of players, we will be confident and make the most of everything that is there. But obviously anything that helps us win will be a good move.”

(Top photo by Bellinger: Jimmy Sabaugh/Getty Images)

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