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Paul Sullivan: The Cubs and White Sox are back to work. Now where were we again?

PHOENIX — Justin Steele admitted he didn’t watch much of the postseason last October after the way the Chicago Cubs ended their season.

“It’s cool to watch playoff baseball and everything is exciting,” the Cubs left-hander said last month. “But when you are that close, it kind of feels like you should be part of it sometimes. … I wasn’t watching too much. Just taking my mental break from it.”

Everyone could use a mental break after a season that starts in mid-February and goes on and on and on for 7 1/2 months — or 8 1/2 if you’re fortunate enough to get to the World Series.

Neither the Cubs nor the White Sox were that lucky in 2023, with the Cubs blowing a National League wild-card spot in the brutal final weeks and the Sox enduring what their chairman aptly referred to as a “nightmare” season.

The members of our two legacy franchises presumably are mentally refreshed and ready to go Wednesday, when a new season begins with the start of training camps in Mesa and Glendale, Ariz.

A new year means putting the last one in the rearview mirror and never mentioning it again in polite company — or to the media.

But in case anyone forgot where we left off, Sox manager Pedro Grifol insisted in September that the Sox would be able to contend in 2024 in spite of what turned into a 101-loss campaign.

“Why wouldn’t we be able to?” he asked a skeptical reporter.

Well, history, for one.

“There is a pretty good percentage of teams that have been out there that can turn it around in one year,” Grifol replied. “And so obviously it depends on what we do this offseason. I’m pretty confident that we can.”

The Sox had a relatively busy offseason dumping regulars such as Tim Anderson and Yasmani Grandal, but the acquisitions weren’t exactly the cream of the free-agent crop. General manager Chris Getz said Monday he concentrated on defensive improvements when he discovered during talks with free-agent pitchers and their agents that “there was hesitancy to come to the White Sox because of the defense.”

“I wanted it to be an attractive place for pitchers to want to pitch here,” Getz said.

There’s still time, dude.

In a stroke of luck for the Sox, talented starters such as Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery remain unsigned and surely would be happy to pitch in front of the improved Sox defense for the right price.

Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who turns 88 on Feb. 25, should be extra motivated to sign one of them. When he promoted Getz on Aug. 31, Reinsdorf said, “One of the things I owe the fans is to get better as fast as we possibly can get better.”

“Speed is of the essence,” he added. “I don’t want this to be a long-term proposition.”

What better way of paying back Sox fans for their patience than to sign an elite free-agent starter to a long-term deal?

Oh, wait. Reinsdorf also said that day that “we’re not going to sign pitchers to 10-year deals.”

It was a nice idea while it lasted. Now he can turn back to finding someone to pay for his South Loop ballpark.

Getz has done as good a job as could be expected from a first-year GM asked to slash payroll and improve the clubhouse culture in the same breath. He at least deserves a chance to show what kind of team he rebuilt before Sox fans pile on, which is probably inevitable if the season goes the way everyone expects.

But for the next six weeks, hope is in the air at Camelback Ranch.

Getz won’t concede it’s a rebuild, which is weird considering the moves he has made. Then again, neither did Cubs President Jed Hoyer when he started over at the trade deadline in 2021. Maybe it’s a Chicago thing.

When Hoyer finally decided to compete, he made several big moves going into 2023, bringing in Cody Bellinger, Dansby Swanson and Jameson Taillon. Two of them had strong seasons, and one of those two became a free agent, so the possible absence of Bellinger in 2024 could mean the Cubs are back to square one.

Cubs fans are praying Hoyer pulls out an oldie but goodie from the Theo Epstein playbook and does a “Dexter” — which would entail secretly signing Bellinger and having him walk out on the back field in Mesa to great applause from teammates and fans, as Dexter Fowler famously did in 2016.

“Theo got us all,” Cubs catcher David Ross said that day. “Theo pulled one over.”

But until that happens, the Cubs offense will be suspect and fans will wonder what happened to the wheelbarrow full of money that Business Operations President Crane Kenney said would go back into the payroll.

Wasn’t the introduction of the Marquee Sports Network supposed to ensure the Cubs competed for a title every year?

The Cubs, as they currently stand, are a .500 team. Maybe last year was a mirage.

Steele said last month players already have had conversations about how close they came.

“We were literally one win away from possibly going to the World Series,” he said. “We were fighting with the Diamondbacks for that last (wild-card) spot, and they made it all the way to the World Series.

“Just shows you you’ve just got to get in and anything can happen. I feel like it should leave a little bit of a bitter taste in some people’s mouths. For me, it’s exciting going into this year because I feel like we all know we can do that again — and even more.”

Getting in wouldn’t have meant they were World Series-bound, but the point is the Cubs were in the same area code as the D-Backs. Seeing them reach the World Series might have been the impetus for Hoyer to splurge on a new manager, perhaps feeling Craig Counsell was the missing piece in the Cubs puzzle.

Now we’ll find out whether Counsell can do what Ross could not do — and with basically the same cast, minus Marcus Stroman and perhaps Bellinger.

Whatever happens, it’s sure to be a fascinating season on both sides of town. Whether you’re rooting for the North Siders or the future South Loopers, the start of spring training should be a time to celebrate.

Mental break time is over. Baseball is finally back.

And if that doesn’t brighten up your day, I just can’t help you.