Paul Sullivan: Waiting on the Chicago Cubs is not an unfamiliar occurrence for antsy fans

CHICAGO — With the Cubs Convention around the corner, it’s a good time to remind fans that the Rickettses are only about $1 billion behind the Los Angeles Dodgers’ owners in offseason spending.

There’s still plenty of time to catch up before spring training begins in five weeks, and with prices expected to drop for all but the big names, such as Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell and Josh Hader, the chances of the Cubs adding remain promising.

They might not catch the Dodgers in spending, but they could pass the White Sox, who’ve quietly added low-salaried players on short-term deals in what they insist is not a rebuild. Trading Dylan Cease should be evidence otherwise, though he was still on the Sox roster as of Saturday night.

The Cubs, meanwhile, had yet to invest in a free agent, much less consummate a trade, after ending the 2023 season blowing a wild-card lead, letting their most productive player, Bellinger, hit free agency and firing manager David Ross.

It’s not exactly the game plan Cubs fans envisioned after the shocking dismissal of Ross and hiring of Craig Counsell to a record five-year, $40 million deal. But President Jed Hoyer warned last month at the MLB winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., he felt no added pressure to make a big splash just because Counsell is at the helm.

“I don’t feel any big need to justify that,” he said. “Certainly I have no doubt over the next few years we’ll be aggressive. If that’s this year, great. If that’s in future years … I don’t feel like we have to because of that.”

So it doesn’t look like Hoyer will do a full-fledged cannonball into the pool, even though at this point a minimal splash might suffice.

After radio silence since the meetings, Hoyer will be front and center next weekend at the Cubs Convention, which begins Friday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. Chairman Tom Ricketts, whose panel discussion with his siblings at the convention was canceled because of an alleged lack of interest, will be available to “chat over a beverage” with some lucky fans attending an exclusive reception.

Whether the Cubs need to do something this week to avoid nonstop grousing at the convention is debatable. It would seem crazy to make a move just to placate a thousand or so fans at a downtown hotel in mid-January.

But we’ve seen crazier things over the years. Cubs Convention week has been used in the past to make big announcements, such as in 2007 when they gave prospect Jeff Samardzija a five-year, $10 million deal to forego an NFL career, or 2012, when they announced the re-signing of Kerry Wood. Wood was the last player introduced during the opening ceremony, and the crowd went wild when the deal was announced.

“If you start making baseball decisions based on PR, you’re losing,” Cubs President Theo Epstein told the media a half-hour before Wood’s deal was announced.

While it’s fine for fans to fantasize Bellinger could walk out Friday at the opening ceremony to the announcement of a long-term deal, the likelihood seems remote. Bellinger seems to be in no rush to sign. The San Francisco Giants and Toronto Blue Jays remain possible landing spots after both missed out on Shohei Ohtani. And Hoyer doesn’t really do PR, preferring to work in the shadows.

But as long as Bellinger is out there he remains a focus of the Cubs brass. Hoyer & Co. know they can’t go into the season without a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter and still pretend they’re competing for a division title. And even if they were to sign Bellinger, they have improvements to make in the bullpen, and possibly the rotation, before calling it a day.

The Cubs reportedly are among the finalists for 30-year-old Japanese left-hander Shōta Imanaga, according to The Athletic. That might cause a slight ripple, though perhaps not an official splash.

The rotation currently consists of Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Jameson Taillon and Jordan Wicks, with Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad and Drew Smyly as possible No. 5 starters.

Is it strong enough to win in a pedestrian National League Central? Probably. Could it get better? Definitely.

Some of Hoyer’s best moves in his three seasons as president have been allowing his players to leave instead of giving them the multiyear deals they sought. Not re-signing Jeimer Candelario, who faded from his red-hot start after being acquired from the Washington Nationals on July 31 for the playoff push, should fall into that category, though it’s not exactly big money, relatively speaking.

Candelario recently signed an affordable three-year, $45 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds, who figure to compete with the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers for the NL Central title. But Candelario’s poor finish and injuries during the September collapse made the Cubs move on, even at the risk of him returning to form elsewhere.

And Hoyer probably won’t miss starter Marcus Stroman, who opted out of his $21 million deal and remained unsigned as of Saturday. Stroman’s injuries and ineffectiveness in the second half made him expendable, so Hoyer might have dodged a bullet. We’ll see if Stroman signs a better deal with a contender.

Every fan base wants its team to spend because it shows the owner is “serious” about winning. But it can also work the other way, as the New York Mets and San Diego Padres found out in 2023.

Hoyer often referred to “intelligent spending” the last two years. He wisely has avoided the term so far this offseason after it was mocked on social media and by wiseguys in the media. But that doesn’t mean he has abandoned his philosophy.

When Counsell was announced as Cubs manager Nov. 13, he was asked about the possibility of Hoyer spending big this offseason.

“Free agency is fun to talk about, fun to write about and I think it’s certainly on the table,” Counsell said. “But I think the mission for Jed is ‘What is the best way to build something that can last for a long time?’ And when I say the organization is in a healthy place, he has all those options on the table to do that.

“But obviously free agency can also get you in a lot of trouble. There is certainly the ability to do it, to talk about anything. Jed made that clear, and that’s exciting. But how you build a team that is going to continually compete, it certainly takes more than free agency, and I think we all know that.”

Soon the truck will pull up to Wrigley Field to pack the equipment for Arizona. Then the fun starts all over again. But for now it’s just a waiting game.

And waiting is something experienced Cubs fans are familiar with.