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Will same Chicago Cubs offense provide different ending?

MESA, Ariz. — Chicago Cubs manager Craig Counsell was heading out to Maryvale on Wednesday for a Cactus League game against his former Milwaukee Brewers club when agent Scott Boras arrived at camp for the Cody Bellinger news conference.

“I thought (Jordan) Montgomery was coming with you,” Counsell cracked, referring to another of the so-called “Boras Four” free agents who remain unsigned.

Montgomery isn’t on the Cubs’ radar, and the Bellinger signing is likely the last big move of the offseason as the payroll approaches the luxury-tax threshold.

“We’re never going to stop looking,” Cubs President Jed Hoyer said of possible additions. “I’m never going to put a final nail in that. Things come up all the time — trades, free agents. But it’s the (end) of February and I think that’s the expectation, though I would never rule anything out.”

What you see is what you’ll get, barring some trade-deadline moves. Counsell said Thursday that he’s looking at the roster he has with the understanding there will be no more significant moves this spring.

“I’ll be honest, even before Cody (signed), I wasn’t thinking about it like that,” Counsell said. “You’re at the time of the year, in your head, that you start looking at rosters for sure, and that’s with the guys here. I think we’re really well positioned. The flexibility with the roster right now, I think we’re in a good spot.”

So does the return of Bellinger make the Cubs favorites in the National League Central? DraftKings Sportsbook now has the Cubs as the favorites, slightly ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

At the very least the Cubs should be considered contenders, which is what was from fans expected every year from 2015-21 before the summer sell-off in ’21 of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and the rest of the former core.

“I was already feeling that way beforehand,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “This just solidifies that even more.”

Still, the Cubs won only 83 games last season and have returned almost the same lineup, so they’ll have to show some improvement to get over the hump. The biggest change from 2023 is Christopher Morel starting at third base after spending much of last year as the designated hitter.

Photos: An inside look at Cubs spring training

Matchups ultimately will decide who is the DH on a daily basis, and Counsell will have power options from the right side in Patrick Wisdom, who hit 23 home runs in 268 at-bats in 2023, and from the left side in Michael Busch, who had 26 home runs in 390 at-bats for Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. Miles Mastrobuoni and Mike Tauchman also provide offense from the left side, and Miguel Amaya should get opportunities against left-handers when Yan Gomes starts behind the plate.

“It’s the spot I’ve thought the least about, and that probably means it’s going to be a bunch of guys, and to keep it open means we can slide, wherever this (roster) ends up, who is getting those at-bats,” Counsell said.

“Right now we have some nonroster guys in camp that can factor into that as well, so it’s kind of wide open for that reason. … Those are decisions to me that clear themselves up as the days go by, so I don’t like to spend a lot of time on them.”

The offensive talent is there, with prospects Alexander Canario, Pete Crow-Armstrong, Owen Caissie and Matt Shaw also on the cusp.

The Cubs’ ability to learn from last year’s late-season swoon will be something to monitor. The bullpen was obviously tired and factored into the stretch with nine losses and a league-worst 10 blown saves in September.

But September also proved to be a tough month for the offense, which was basically carried by Seiya Suzuki, who hit .370 with a .685 slugging percentage in the month, and Nico Hoerner, who hit .302 with a .382 on-base percentage.

Swanson had a good season overall but hit .236 with a .391 slugging percentage in September. He acknowledged he wasn’t totally satisfied with his season despite being named to the National League All-Star team and winning the NL Gold Glove award at short.

Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson fields a ground ball and throws to first base during spring training practice on Feb. 20, 2024, in Mesa, Ariz. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson fields a ground ball and throws to first base during spring training practice on Feb. 20, 2024, in Mesa, Ariz. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

“In simple (terms), no,” he said. “I’ve always had high standards for myself, and I’m not so graceful with myself when I don’t live up to those. All in all, when you look at everything, it was a really difficult year personally. It was just challenging.

“And at the end of the day, I fought about as hard as I’ve fought in a long time. And I see that as personal success in a certain way, because it’s going to shape me for things ahead.”

Like Swanson, the team’s confidence in itself hasn’t waned. But as the veteran leaders of the club, Bellinger and Swanson should be expected to step up in big situations more often than not. That’s why they got the money they did.

“We talked about confidence a little bit, and Dansby carries himself with great confidence,” Counsell said. “That’s a form of leadership, if that makes sense, because other players see that, and how you react to things.

“Seeing him for a couple weeks, it’s even more impressive. Watching him pick up a ground ball. … I knew he won a Gold Glove and everything, so I knew he was good, but now that I’m watching it, it’s like ‘God, can you make it any easier? It’s fun to watch, and that confidence is leadership.”

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