Image: Matt Marton/AP
by Ilyas Adnane
2021 Record: 71-91(.438 win%, 4th in Division)
2021 Payroll: $144,607,670 (13th)
Projected 2022 Lineup:
1. CF Rafael Ortega, .248 AVG/.321 OBP/.404 SLG, 0.8 fWAR
2. 1B Frank Schwindel, .266 AVG/.316 OBP/.486 SLG, 1.3 fWAR
3. C Willson Contreras, .240 AVG/.335 OBP/.433 SLG, 2.1 fWAR
4. LF Ian Happ, .240 AVG/.338 OBP/.459 SLG, 2.5 fWAR
5. RF Seiya Suzuki, .286 AVG/.386 OBP/.528 SLG, 3.9 fWAR
6. DH Patrick Wisdom, .210 AVG/.288 OBP/.436 SLG, 0.8 fWAR
7. 3B Jonathan Villar, .252 AVG/.323 OBP/.398 SLG, 1.0 fWAR
8. SS Andrelton Simmons, .261 AVG/.314 OBP/.366 SLG, 1.3 fWAR
9. 2B Nick Madrigal, .297 AVG/.349 OBP/.421 SLG, 1.9 fWAR
Projected 2022 Rotation:
1. Marcus Stroman, 188.0 IP/4.45 ERA/1.38 WHIP, 2.2 fWAR
2. Kyle Hendricks, 184.0 IP/5.05 ERA/1.39 WHIP, 1.2 fWAR
3. Wade Miley, 167.0 IP/4.78 ERA/1.48 WHIP, 1.2 fWAR
4. Alec Mills, 103.0 IP/5.18 ERA/1.46 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR
5. Drew Smyly, 120.0 IP/4.99 ERA/1.40 WHIP, 0.6 fWAR
Projected 2022 Top 3 Relievers:
1. Mychal Givens, 54.0 IP/4.46 ERA/1.37 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR
2. Rowan Wick, 64.0 IP/4.37 ERA/1.38 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR
3. Manuel Rodriguez, 34.0 IP/4.43 ERA/1.46 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR
Despite beginning the offseason with around $140 million to spend, the Cubs decided to go with a quiet approach. They began by signing veteran catcher Yan Gomes to a 2-year deal with a third-year option. Gomes is coming off a solid year, earning 1.6 fWAR in 103 games between two clubs. He posted great DRS metrics last year, while his -1.7 FRM does have him in the bottom 25th percent of the league in that metric. The signing hasn’t done much to assuage the Willson Contreras trade rumors, but it will provide a great veteran presence for the team to learn from.
Chicago also acquired Wade Miley from the Reds on a waiver claim. Miley is coming off a career year, posting a 3.37 ERA while improving his expected batting numbers, providing the team with a veteran arm on their young staff. He has lost some spin on his pitches, which can be seen from his subpar run values on both breaking balls. He excelled at providing weak contact, with a 38.1% weak contact rate compared to the 33.2% for the MLB average and an average exit velo in the 95th percentile. In a rotation filled with arms that look to produce weak contact, Miley can excel in Wrigley and repeat the success he found last year.
The Cubs followed that up by acquiring left fielder Clint Frazier and pitcher Marcus Stroman on 1 year $1.5 million and 3 year $71 million deals, respectively. Frazier, a longtime member of the Yankee organization, showed signs of promise a few years ago, posting a 124 OPS+ in 123 games from 2018-2020. Last year, however, he slashed .186/.317/.317 in 66 games before missing the rest of the season with vertigo. Both he and Chicago hope that a change of scenery will lead to better results.
As the big signing of the pre-lockout window, Stroman is looking to anchor a rotation that lacks quality. A career 3.63 ERA and 3.62 FIP player, he’s been a much-improved pitcher since his lackluster 2018 season. Splitting time between the Blue Jays and Mets his last two seasons, he posted a 3.12 ERA and 135 ERA+ in 363.1 innings in 2019 and 2021. While his 3.61 FIP during that stretch indicates some luck, he posted career highs in Whiff%, Chase%, Weak%, and PutAway%, suggesting he has improved his ability to miss bats consistently. None of his pitches posted a positive run value in 2021, providing a strong foundation for him to build upon for this year.
Post lockout, while being linked to Carlos Correa and an assortment of former Cubs, the team signed another pair of uninspiring veteran players in shortstop Andrelton Simmons and utility infielder Jonathan Villar. Simmons has widely been considered the best defensive shortstop in baseball, posting a defensive rating of 165.4 on Fangraphs since he has been in the league, 61 points above the next infielder.
After posting back-to-back 5 fWAR seasons in 2017-18, Simmons has had a rough time since, posting a 70 wRC+ and 1.6 fWAR in 264 games. With the Cubs lacking a true shortstop, he appears to be their answer as an everyday option. Villar is a speedster in every definition of the word. Playing for his 5th team in the last 4 years, Villar posted a 99 OPS+ and stealing 70 bases in 356 games since 2018. He will get plenty of opportunities to become a utility trade candidate for a contending team looking to utilize his speed and defensive versatility.
However, a key transaction was made in the 11th hour. Japanese slugger Seiya Suzuki signed a massive 5 year $99.6 million dollar deal shortly before spring training. Suzuki is a great talent coming over from NPB to boost Chicago’s lineup. He will be discussed further in the Players to Watch section.
To cap it off, the Cubs added starter Drew Smyly from the Atlanta Braves. The former Cub, who pitched 1 inning in the minors for them in 2018 on his way to recovering from Tommy John, posted a 4.29 ERA the last 2 years, good for 3% better than league average. He did not do a great job of avoiding hard contact last year, posting a 10.1% Barrel % and 39% HardHit rate. As another flier for the patchwork rotation, Smyly’s best case scenario is to emerge as a possible trade candidate for a potential playoff team.
To shore up the bullpen, Mychel Givens and David Robertson were also signed, adding veteran arms to the weakest part of the team for the second year running.
On the flip side, utility infielder Matt Duffy, catcher Robinson Chirinos and pitcher Zach Davies left. Duffy was a solid bench bat, posting a 1.5 fWAR in 97 games while playing 5 positions, not posting a negative DRS at any of them. Chirinos was a great late season pickup for the team, acquiring 0.5 fWAR and 108 wRC+ in 45 games. Davies, the only high level talent acquired in the Yu Darvish trade, struggled immensely and was one of the worst pitchers in baseball.
2022 Season Preview:
If there’s a word to summarize this Cubs team in its entirety, it’s mediocrity.. According to Steamer, Chicago is projected to have none of its 19 starters expected to throw at least 10 innings and finish with an ERA less than 4. Four out of a total of 35 players who will either throw at least 10 innings or take 70 ABs are projected to finish with an fWAR of at least 2, with Suzuki leading the team at 3.9. While he and Stroman look like All-Star caliber players, there really isn’t another player who looks as if they could offer a similar level of production.
Pitching-wise, the team’s current ace Kyle Hendricks showed signs of regression last year. His changeup has gone from being one of his better pitches, posting a run value of -0.4 in 2019 and 2020, to posting a run value of 8 and career highs in wOBA, xBA, xSLG, and HardHit%. His inability to miss bats was well-proven last year with career high in Barrel %. His 4-seamer, sinker, and changeup were lacking in horizontal movement, suggesting that he’s lost some touch on his pitches. The Cubs must be wondering if the Kyle Hendricks of yesteryear has disappeared, and how the new one will adjust.
Outside of Stroman, Hendricks, and Miley as the top 3, several players are looking to make a name for themselves and crack the starting 5. After Smyly, Alec Mills is looking to bounce back from a rough campaign. He finished in the bottom 10 percentile in xBA and K%, while being 25th percentile in xwOBA and xERA. Like most arms in the rotation, he excels at generating weaker contact rather than striking guys out but lacked that trait last year. While getting a career year from his sinker, with a -10 run value despite a .361 wOBA, his four-seam and curve were hit hard, to the tune of a .321 and .471 batting average and .440 and .451 wOBA, respectively.
Justin Steele debuted last year, and outside of missing 2 months with a hamstring injury, he was solid: 54th percentile in xwOBA and xERA, and top 40 percentile in HardHit%, Barrel%, and average exit velo. While he struggled with poor command and inability to get hitters to chase, his 27.6% Whiff% and 80% zone contact rate showcase an ability to miss bats inside the zone, which can be seen in the discrepancy between his expected batting numbers and xOBA. If he can improve his ability to consistently throw strikes while keeping his high whiff numbers, he will definitely emerge as a staple of the rotation for the next few years.
The last real contender, among many guys who will get a few spot starts, is Adbert Alzolay who will not be available for the first few weeks of the season. Alzolay had an impressive 2020, posting a 2.95 ERA and 3.43 xERA while being top 10 in xBA, xSLG, K%. Last season, he struggled immensely, especially against lefties. His 4.58 ERA wasn’t helped by giving up 20 HRs in 56.1 innings pitched against lefties, compared to 5 homers in 69 innings versus righties. His 368-point discrepancy between the OPS between lefties and righties, .556 to .924, that latter number can be traced to his lack of a putaway pitch against. His slider had a run value of -9 the year prior, being seemingly unhittable to RHBs, but his sinker and changeup aren’t especially threatening to lefties. His development of his changeup for lefties will be crucial to his ceiling either being a starter or a long reliever next season.
Bullpen wise, the team is an assortment of young guys looking for a chance to break in and veteran journeymen trying to reacquire their old form. Rowan Wick projects to be the closer, and after dealing with injuries the past few seasons, is looking to bring back his ’19 self, where he had a 2.43 ERA in 33.1 innings. Mychel Givens and Chris Martin had good seasons for Baltimore/Cincinnati and Atlanta, respectively, with Jesse Chavez also producing some timely outs last year for the world champ Braves as well.
Keegan Thompson and Manuel Rodriguez headline the assortment of young arms from the Cubs system looking to break in the regular mix. Thompson had a 3.38 ERA in 53 innings between the pen and rotation, and Rodriguez was unable to show consistent command on his powerful fastball the prior year, finishing with a 6.11 ERA while walking 14% of batters. The Cubs have enough upside that some of these arms should churn out excellent seasons, but consistency will be a major issue.
Behind the plate is the fan-favorite and most hated man in Milwaukee, Willson Contreras. He will have some time spent DHing on days off. At the corners, 2nd year players Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom look to build upon their success from a year ago. We will do a deep dive on these players later.
As for the middle of the infield, Simmons will be the teams starting shortstop, due to his incredible defensive prowess. This leaves 2nd base, a battle between Nick Madrigal and Nico Hoerner primarily, with Villar getting the occasional cup of coffee.
Madrigal was the centerpiece of the Craig Kimbrel trade from a year ago. The former White Sox has spent his time in the majors showing the out-of-this-world bat-to-ball skills which made him the number four pick in 2018 from Oregon State. In 324 MLB at-bats, he has a 95.3(!) Zone Contact % while boasting a 77.9(!) Chase Contact rate, offering a requiem for fans of the old school era.
When it comes to power hitting, Madrigal is completely out of his element. If his career .089 ISO doesn’t show it, then his career .337 xSLG, which is 70 points below the MLB average, and 22.1% HardHit%, 13% below the MLB average, certainly do. With a below average walk rate as well and coming off a year where he posted a -4 DRS, if he isn’t batting around .300-.320, he isn’t adding too much to the team. Chicago has shown a propensity to develop power, providing an avenue for Madrigal to expand his game and establish himself as a premier 2nd baseman in today’s game.
Hoerner, on the other hand, has been a long-time member of the organization, going 24th in the same draft as Madrigal. He debuted in late 2019, and started the majority of games in 2020 before being held to 44 games last year due to injury. The longtime shortstop prospect has slid into 2nd nicely the last two years, posting 10 DRS in 500 innings while having a career DRS of 0 in 300 innings at short. Being in the 97th percentile for OAA, Hoerner could be a gold glove candidate at 2nd soon.
Like Madrigal, Hoerner’s power leaves much to be desired, with a career .078 ISO that has fallen drastically since his .154 mark in 82 PAs in 2019. He has significantly improved his plate discipline, going from a 3.5 BB% in ‘19 to 10 this past year and lowering his Chase% by 16%. His contact rates aren’t bad either, with a career 89% Zone Contact% and 67% Chase Contact percentage. His power development and ability to stay healthy will determine his future in baseball, and how often that elite glove will be able to see the field.
For the outfield, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, and Rafael Ortega will join Frazier in a battle for the final 2 spots alongside Suzuki. Happ has long been the epitome of inconsistency. He posted a 108 OPS+ in his first two big league seasons while striking out over a third of the time. After an extended stay in the minors in 2019, he slashed .260/.350/.530 and had a 3.3 fWAR in 115 games. Last season, he had a .605 OPS while striking out 31% of the time through August 15th before finishing on a tear, batting .333 with a .407 OBP and .680 SLG, lowering his K rate to about a quarter and more than doubling his homers. He had an increase in Barrel% on fastballs, suggesting he went from just missing those pitches to making better contact on them later in the season. With the number of names in the outfield, Happ must know a slow start to 2022 will be much harder to bounce back from.
Heyward has long been the worst contract and possibly worst hitter in baseball for a while now. After posting okay numbers in the previous two season, posting a .789 OPS in 197 games, Heyward regressed hard in 2021, posting career lows in average, OBP, OPS, OPS+, fWAR, and being in the bottom 20% in xBA, xwOBA, xSLG, xOBP, Barrel%, and finishing in the bottom 6% in wOBA. While still putting up 3 DRS and being 81st percentile in OAA, there is almost zero reason for him to get consistent playing time this year, outside of late game defense.
Ortega, after playing parts of 4 seasons in MLB across the previous 9 years, had a career year in ’21. His 1.6 fWAR in 103 games and slash line of .291/.360/.463 came completely out of nowhere. Turning 31 in May on a team that is looking to cultivate its younger talent, he needs to replicate the success of last year to get at bats this year.
The farm, similar to the major league team, lacks any real star quality outside of 22-year-old OF Brennan Davis and 18-year-old SS Cristian Hernandez. The No.1 prospect in the organization and No. 15 in baseball, Davis grades out with a 55 FV on Fangraphs, and fits the mold of a big bat, defensive outfielder. While he needs to work on making consistent contact, his near .900 OPS in AAA last season is a great sight, and he could debut sometime this year.
No. 4 prospect Caleb Killian could also be called up this year. He posted a 2.75 ERA in 15 starts in AA last season, to go along with high strikeout numbers and low BB and HR totals. A fireballer with good command and solid off-speed pitches, Killian could definitely eat up some innings on a team that desperately needs it.
Record Prediction: 76-86
One thing Chicago has going for them is playing NL Central, where the competition for beyond Milwaukee is not necessarily awe-inspiring. One downside in the schedule is having to play the AL East, with 4 possible playoff teams in Boston, Tampa Bay, New York, and Toronto. The team doesn’t get any favors early on either, as they play the Brewers for their first series and host the Braves, Brewers, Dodgers, White Sox, and Padres in early May consecutively.
This team could be out of the playoff picture almost immediately, but there are a lot of players with upside that can develop and show out early. The top 3 of the rotation can be better than league average, the infield can be around league average with exceptional performances from the corner spots and development in the middle, and if the outfield can find the right players, this is a team that could be over .500 and have an outsider’s chance at the postseason.
Realistically, some of the hot bats from last year will regress and the team lacks enough high-level talent to provide a day-to-day presence in the middle of the order. This is a trial year for the Cubs to focus on finding the players for the next few years that can contribute. They’ll focus heavily on that as well as developing the abundance of minor league talent in their system.
Player to Watch #1: C Willson Contreras
Among the exodus of World Series talent the Cubs let go last year, Contreras was one of the few kept. He has long been a premier catcher in baseball, putting up solid offensive numbers while gradually improving his defensive skills. His 6.3 fWAR since 2019 is 5th among catchers with 800 at bats during that time period. During that time he has gone from league average to top 3rd in framing, accruing 8 DRS in the process.
His peripherals have not fluctuated dramatically from year to year, as he has maintained an xwOBA around 70th percentile while being around .350. However, extension talks have stalled out early in the offseason, and with this being his last year of team control, the Cubs may roll the dice on former No. 1 prospect Miguel Amaya as their catcher of the future and ship Contreras to a contender.
Player to Watch #2: OF Seiya Suzuki
Suzuki has spent the previous 9 years in the NPB, where he led the Central League in batting average twice while finishing top 10 the last 6 years racking up 25+ HR seasons. While his power is expected to dip slightly in the transition, his excellent plate discipline should assist him in providing a threatening presence in a lineup severely lacking any. However, the transition from Japanese ball to MLB isn’t easy.
Hideki Matsui saw his OPS drop nearly 400 points when he made the move, and Kosuke Fukudome, the last Japanese player to transition on the Cubs, only could muster a career high OPS of .809 after leaving Japan with a career-long .867 OPS. In addition, hitting in Wrigley in April is among one of the harder things to do in baseball due to the frigid temperatures, lack of consistent weather, and severe winds. Suzuki may start slow out of the gates, but if he has an all-star June and July, the league will be put on notice.
Player to Watch #3: 1B Frank Schwindel/3B Patrick Wisdom
Another year of me breaking the rules for this section. Similar to last year’s reasoning, however, Schwindel and Wisdom are both linked in their respective situations. They are both 30-year-old corner infielders desperate to make the most of their dwindling big league opportunities.
Schwindel, a St. John’s alumnus, who has recorded nearly 3500 plate appearances in the minors, came out on fire last year. After being dealt to the Cubs from Oakland, he posted a 152 wRC+ and 2.1 fWAR in 64 games across both teams, ending the year by slashing .342/.389/.613 in 56 games in Chicago and taking home two Rookie of the Month awards in his first 2 full months in MLB. He excelled at making contact, posting a strikeout rate 7% below the league average, and his .384 wOBA would have been tied with Tyler O’Neill for 11th in baseball among qualified hitters. However, he only had an xwOBA of .323, placing him between Adam Frazier and Miguel Sano. Defensively, he was 16th in UZR/150 for players with as many innings played as him, meaning he needs to be hitting well to provide surplus value.
If Schwindel preaches contact, Wisdom is a disciple of the dinger. While having the worst Whiff% and striking out 40% of the time, he finished 83rd percentile in average exit velocity and 92nd in HardHit%. Pair this with his 75th percentile finish for OAA at 3rd base, and what reason is there to not let him be the full time starter at third? Well, his wOBA consistently dropped every month, putting up a .262 in September to go along with his .585 OPS in 22 games. Wisdom seems like a case of a flash in the pan who got figured out at the end of last year.
In the end, both players had promising starts last season, fully embracing their late bloomer status while becoming fan favorites. However, they do not seem destined to reproduce the success from a year ago. It will be interesting to see if they were able to make any adjustments over their offseason, and if they can live out their big league dream just a little bit longer.
Categories: 2022 Season Preview
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