Swanson won't let contract add pressure to first Cubs season

March 23rd, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- When  sought advice or insight from others while weighing his options in free agency, most of the conversations centered around the idea of change. This was the Georgia-born kid who played his whole big league career in Atlanta and grew into a leader and World Series champion for his hometown team.

Leaving the comfort of home was a daunting thought at first, especially for a person who thrives on structure and routine. After his morning workout prior to Thursday’s 11-1 win over the D-backs, Swanson laughed as he explained that he even picked up food at the same spot every day in Atlanta.

"Now I've got to find my spots in Chicago," Swanson joked. "Nothing I can't handle."

The biggest question is how Swanson will handle the pressures that come with being the de facto face of the franchise for this next phase in the Cubs' timeline. Plenty of strong-minded athletes have struggled with the spotlight that comes with a blockbuster contract and the expectation of winning.

After Jon Lester signed his six-year, $155 million contract with the Cubs prior to the 2015 season, the veteran pitcher admitted that the pressure impacted him in his first year. Outfielder Jason Heyward echoed that feeling in the seasons after signing his eight-year, $184 million deal in Chicago.

Swanson's seven-year, $177 million pact checks in as the second-richest deal in Cubs' free-agent history. As Cubs manager David Ross has gotten to know the shortstop since the signing, he has yet to feel the need to discuss the inherent pressure linked to such a deal.

"He knows himself really well," Ross said. "He knows what it takes to win and, if you really look at his journey, there's been some ups and downs of success and failures to lead him to this point in his life. So he feels very comfortable in his own skin. He's very vocal about what he does well and the things he needs to prepare to be ready to play.

"So no, if I ever have some sense of that, I'll have a conversation, or we can have a chat about some of the things I've seen with my experiences. But he's very, very comfortable in his own skin and has a lot of confidence in himself."

To Ross' point, it has taken the 29-year-old Swanson time to develop into the kind of all-around player worthy of the deal the Cubs handed him over the winter. He was always a gifted defender at shortstop, but Swanson's offensive production has continued to rise (84 OPS+ from 2016-19 before a 108 OPS+ in '20-22).

The version of Swanson that Chicago signed is a Gold Glove-winning shortstop who boasts power (52 homers combined in '21-22), speed (18 steals in '22) and durability (162 games in '22) and has forged a reputation as a clubhouse leader and motivator. He was brought in to help the Cubs emerge from a rebuild and return to contending.

There is plenty of pressure packed in there before even discussing money matters.

"Contract or not, I've always had a pressure on myself to perform," Swanson said. "No one's standards will outpace mine for myself and for our team, so the contract part is not something I really look at in terms of that kind of pressure. That's just not me."

That has made this spring a kind of early test run for Swanson.

With Thursday's 0-for-3 showing, Swanson has gone just 2-for-34 in the batter's box in Cactus League play for the Cubs. All the statistics reset to zero when Opening Day arrives, but Swanson is still fighting through the mental toll poor results can take on a player.

"The biggest struggle with spring," Swanson said, "is not getting caught up in, like, 'Oh, am I getting hits or am I not?' At the end of the day, my biggest thing has been, 'Am I swinging at the right pitches?' And I would say that's a yes for me. The timing is just a tick late."

In recent days, the Cubs allowed Swanson to bring his own hitting coach in for some sessions in the cage. Between that outside help and the Cubs' hitting team, Swanson is confident he has found the source of his issues in his stance setup.

It has been just one more challenge for Swanson ahead of this important season.

"The beauty of it all, too," Swanson said, "is I feel like being in Chicago is going to grow me more than I could ever imagine. That's part of what I've asked for, right. I'm very appreciative and thankful for any type of successes, challenges, struggles or anything like that."