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The Cubs got their shortstop. How much better does that make them?

Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson hits a two-run homer during the fifth inning in Game 6 of the World Series against Houston. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)
5 min

In the years since the Chicago Cubs won their long-awaited World Series title in 2016, their offseasons have been defined more by departures than arrivals. Little by little, piece by piece, the Cubs watched homegrown stars go elsewhere, chipping away at a once-talented roster that sunk steadily into mediocrity.

But Saturday night, for the first time since they signed Jason Heyward for $184 million in 2015, the Cubs committed more than $100 million to an established position player when they reportedly agreed to pay shortstop Dansby Swanson $177 million over seven years, a deal first reported by ESPN.

Swanson has played his entire major league career with the Atlanta Braves and led them to the World Series title in 2021. He is an elite defensive shortstop who last season compiled a career year offensively. He is the kind of player who stabilizes a roster but doesn’t transform it. Yet to these Cubs, a big-market team whose stinginess in recent winters has frustrated fans who do not understand it, the splurge on Swanson signals a change in approach. What is not clear is how much the results will change because of it.

The Cubs’ infield will be better. Swanson will pair with Nico Hoerner to give the Cubs one of the better defensive middle infields in baseball. He brings recent playoff experience and a history of winning. And if he can produce the way he did in 2022, he should chip in somewhere around 20 homers and a .270 batting average. Again, the kind of hitter who bolsters a lineup but probably will not carry it.

The Cubs already had lost one of their more formidable hitters in catcher Willson Contreras, who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals this month. They took a chance on former National League MVP Cody Bellinger with a one-year deal worth $17.5 million in the hopes that he can regain his old offensive form in an outfield that also includes the prize of last winter, Seiya Suzuki. Both will need to bounce back to help the Cubs’ offense move forward. But a change of scenery for Bellinger and the fact that Suzuki has played a full major league season suggest that, at the very least, resurgence is possible for one or both of them.

Their rotation is deeper now than it was at season’s end, too. This month, the Cubs agreed to a four-year deal with right-hander Jameson Taillon. The 31-year-old was one of the more reliable innings-eaters on this year’s starting pitching market and posted a 4.08 ERA while averaging 160-plus innings over the past two seasons with the New York Yankees. He, like Swanson, is helpful but not transformative. He pairs with wily Kyle Hendricks and fellow righty Marcus Stroman to give the Cubs an experienced and steady rotation core.

Outside factors appear to be working in Chicago’s favor, too. The Milwaukee Brewers have offloaded Hunter Renfroe and Kolten Wong already this offseason, and their ace, Corbin Burnes, continues to appear in trade rumors, for whatever those are worth. If the Brewers decide to deal Burnes, the righty probably would be the most coveted starter available via trade this offseason — and traditionally aggressive teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers could use another starter.

But the trouble with the Cubs, even after the Swanson signing, is that they could not keep up with the division-winning Cardinals last year. Now, the Cardinals have poached their catcher, one of the best offensive backstops in baseball. St. Louis is still powered by two of the biggest stars in the sport, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. It still has promising starting pitching in Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty and a fireballing bullpen. So despite a relative splurge, the Cubs remain firmly in pursuit.

The impact of the Swanson deal will also be felt in Atlanta, where the hometown star had emerged as a fan favorite alongside Freddie Freeman, then became one of the few young Braves players the team did not lock down long term. Atlanta seems to have a natural successor in 21-year-old Vaughn Grissom, a young middle infielder who has reportedly impressed Atlanta infield guru Ron Washington this offseason. And the rest of infield, including just-acquired catcher Sean Murphy, is all-star caliber.

Swanson’s departure is more noteworthy in part because when Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos has wanted to sign stars long term, he has had no trouble doing so. But when Freeman, who like Swanson is represented by Excel, hit free agency last year, he and the Braves endured a messy parting that loomed over his first season with the Dodgers. Now Swanson, the hometown Georgia kid and World Series hero, is headed to Chicago, where his wife, professional soccer player Mallory Pugh, plays in the National Women’s Soccer League. Anthopoulos, it seems, is as comfortable letting sentimental favorites go as he is betting on young players before most other executives would feel comfortable doing so.

At times this offseason, Swanson seemed as though he might fit alongside Freeman with the Dodgers, who lost shortstop Trea Turner to the Philadelphia Phillies. If things hold, they will now probably rely on Gavin Lux to hold down that position. Then again, the Dodgers are not known for sitting still. In fact, they made their biggest addition of a conspicuously quiet offseason Saturday evening in the wake of the Swanson deal when they agreed to a one-year deal with designated hitter J.D. Martinez, per a person familiar with the deal. Martinez has been an all-star in four of the past five seasons in Boston. Since the start of 2018, only 12 hitters in baseball have a higher on-base-plus-slugging percentage.