Image: Quinn Harris/USA Today Sports
2022 Record: 74-88 (.457 win%, 3rd in Division)
2023 Payroll: $173,815,000 (11th)
2023 Projected Lineup* (ZiPS Projections):
1. 2B Nico Hoerner, .273 AVG/.326 OBP/.384 SLG, 3.2 fWAR
2. LF Ian Happ, .244 AVG/.329 OBP/.428 SLG, 2.8 fWAR
3. SS Dansby Swanson, .259 AVG/.323 OBP/.436 SLG, 5.0 fWAR
4. CF Cody Bellinger, .230 AVG/.309 OBP/.406 SLG, 2.5 fWAR
5. RF Trey Mancini, .247 AVG/.323 OBP/.412 SLG, 1.2 fWAR
6. 1B Eric Hosmer, .273 AVG/.330 OBP/.409 SLG, 0.8 fWAR
7. 3B Patrick Wisdom, .209 AVG/.294 OBP/.423 SLG, 0.8 fWAR
8. DH Edwin Ríos, .216 AVG/.283 OBP/.435 SLG, 1.3 fWAR
9. C Tucker Barnhart, .228 AVG/.300 OBP/.315 SLG, 1.1 fWAR
10. UTIL Christopher Morel, .231 AVG/.296 OBP/.418 SLG, 1.6 fWAR
*Projected RF starter Seiya Suzuki (.267 AVG/.352 OBP/.488 SLG, 2.7 fWAR) will likely begin the season on the injured list after suffering a strained oblique in Spring Training.
2023 Projected Starting Rotation* (ZiPS Projections):
1. Marcus Stroman, 150.2 IP/3.58 ERA/1.25 WHIP, 2.3 fWAR
2. Jameson Taillon, 145.2 IP/4.02 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 1.9 fWAR
3. Justin Steele, 104.2 IP/3.70 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 1.5 fWAR
4. Drew Smyly, 93.0 IP/4.84 ERA/1.39 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR
5. Hayden Wesneski, 106.0 IP/4.58 ERA/1.34 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR
*Veteran Kyle Hendricks (113.2 IP/4.43 ERA/1.29 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR) will likely begin the season on the injured list after suffering a capsular tear in his right shoulder in July of last year.
2023 Projected Top 4 Relievers (ZiPS Projections):
1. Michael Fulmer, 60.1 IP/4.03 ERA/1.36 WHIP, 0.4 fWAR
2. Brad Boxberger, 52.0 IP/4.15 ERA/1.33 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR
3. Brandon Hughes, 61.0 IP/4.13 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 0.2 fWAR
4. Adbert Alzolay, 81.0 IP/4.11 ERA/1.22 WHIP, 1.1 fWAR
2022 Offseason Recap:
After trading away most of the remaining pieces of the 2016 World Series core at the 2021 deadline, the Cubs limped to a third-place finish in 2022, 19 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and 13 games out of the final NL Wild Card spot.
However, the team finished the year 33-28 over the final 61 games of the season, including September sweeps of the 101-win Mets and NL Champion Phillies, providing a spark of optimism for president Jed Hoyer and first-year general manager Carter Hawkins.
The North Side’s front office proceeded to make several acquisitions this winter in hopes of contending in 2023, committing $329,355,000 in payroll for this year and beyond per Spotrac between free agency and arbitration deals. However, the departure of Willson Contreras looms large given his move to St. Louis in free agency.
The Key Signings
Dansby Swanson signed a seven-year, $177 million contract in December, coming off a career year with the Braves in 2022 in which he posted career highs in fWAR (6.4) and wRC+ (116) while finishing second in StatCast’s all-encompassing defensive metric Outs Above Average.
Swanson’s signing will push Nico Hoerner (12th in OAA from 2022) over to second base, giving the Cubs what should be elite middle infield defense in the first year of MLB’s newly implemented ban on extreme defensive shifting. The Cubs will hope Swanson’s increase in power the last two seasons (27 HR in 2021; 25 in 2022) is sustainable, although the move from Truist Park (11th in Park Factor for right-handed hitters from 2020-2022) to Wrigley Field (23rd in Park Factor for right-handed hitters from 2020-2022) may prove something of a hindrance.
2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger signed a one-year, $12.5 million contract with a $25 million option and $5 million buyout. Since that 2019 campaign in which Bellinger hit .305 with 47 home runs across 156 games, he has struggled mightily at the plate, combining to hit just .203 with 41 home runs in 295 games over three seasons.
There is no single explanation for Bellinger’s issues at the plate, but a mix of injuries (including a dislocated shoulder suffered in the 2020 NLCS and a fractured fibula in April 2021), a massive uptick in strikeout percentage (from 17.4% in 2020 to 27.0% and 27.3% in 2021 and 2022), an upward shift in average launch angle with a coinciding dip in average hard hit percentage, and subtle mechanical changes to his swing are all reasonable contributing factors.
The defensively versatile ex-Dodger will see most of his starts in center field, though he could also serve as a fill-in option at first base.
Jameson Taillon joins the rotation after two years with the Yankees, inking a four-year, $68 million contract. Taillon registered a 94th percentile walk rate in 2022, allowing free passes to just 4.4% of hitters faced in 177.1 innings pitched to go along with a 20.7% strikeout rate.
This spring, Taillon has experimented with the grip on his slider, his second-most frequently used pitch in 2022 (18.8%) behind his four-seam fastball, transforming the pitch into what the team refers to as a “sweeper” by adding horizontal movement in an effort to increase its swing-and-miss potential against right-handed hitters and serving as a complement to his existing curveball.
The Rest: Complementary Pieces, Bounceback Potential, and Bullpen Arms
Tucker Barnhart is back in the NL Central following a one-year detour in Detroit. The long-time Cincinnati Red and two-time Gold Glove winning catcher will pair with Yan Gomes (ZiPS: .245 AVG/.290 OBP/.298 SLG, 1.2 fWAR) to handle duties behind the plate in a roughly even split. What Barnhart lacks in projected offensive production and sprint speed (1st percentile per Statcast) he makes up for in gifts celebrating extremely important historical milestones like Spring Training no-hitters.
Trey Mancini enters 2023 coming off a season of mixed results. While he slashed .268/.347/.404 (116 wRC+) in 92 games with Baltimore, his production fell off dramatically following a Trade Deadline move to Houston, where Mancini put up a .176/.258/.274 line (77 wRC+) in 51 games.
Despite a consistent average exit velocity for all of 2022 around 89.5 MPH, which matches, Mancini’s career average, his batting average on balls in play fell from .326 with the Orioles to .176 with the Astros, suggesting Mancini may be due for some positive regression if his exit velocity numbers hold and he is able to reign in the 4.9% increase in strikeout percentage following the trade.
Eric Hosmer enters his age 33 season following a year split between the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox. After leading MLB through May 13 with a .377 batting average, Hosmer cooled off considerably, hitting .179 for the rest of May (10-56) and .202 through 98 at-bats in June.
Concerningly, Hosmer’s average exit velocity (88.4 MPH) and hard hit percentage (39.7%) were both down significantly in 2022, despite a career-low strikeout percentage (15.5%) and walk rate in line with his career average (7.7%). On a one-year deal, Hosmer appears to be a stopgap until Matt Mervis, the Cubs’ 2022 Minor League Player of the Year, is called up from AAA Iowa.
Edwin Ríos, a mid-February Major League signing, looks to be in the mix at designated hitter in the early going. Ríos’ MLB experience is fairly limited, spanning 112 games across parts of four seasons, all with the Dodgers. He possesses tremendous raw power, with 20 home runs in his 291 career plate appearances and a massive 47% career hard hit percentage (compared to an MLB average of 35.8% from 2015-2022) but is limited by his extreme strikeout profile (39.6% in 2022; 32.1% career).
Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger should immediately slot into the back-end of the Cubs’ bullpen in 2023. Fulmer, the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year, has developed a unique reliance on his slider since his move to the bullpen, with a 63.4% slider usage rate in 2022 (fifth in MLB) and a +13.9 pitch value over 2021 and 2022.
The Cubs may be hoping that Fulmer’s uniquely hard-thrown slider, with an average velocity of 90.3 MPH in 2022, provides sufficient contrast to the relatively slower “sweeper” that the organization has been emphasizing in Spring Training.
Boxberger features a more traditional fastball, changeup, slider mix, and while he lacks an elite offering, he has proven effective at limiting hard contact, with an average exit velocity in the 90th percentile and an 81st percentile hard hit percentage in 2022.
The Key Departure
Few catchers provide the kind of offensive firepower that Willson Contreras provided the Cubs since his debut in 2016. With the exception of 2019, Contreras has posted a maximum exit velocity no lower than the 93rd percentile, while walking at a 9.5% clip, and generating a 118 wRC+ over that period.
Although he has rated poorly as a pitch framer for his career (-40.0 FRM for his career), the impact of his absence from the lineup will be noticeable given the expected contributions of the Barnhart/Gomes platoon replacing him. Tentatively expect the Cubs to look to improve at catcher via trade should the team be in contention near the Trade Deadline.
- 2B/OF Miles Mastrobuoni (acquired via trade from Tampa Bay)
- RP Julian Merryweather (claimed off waivers from Toronto)
- OF Jason Heyward (released; signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers)
- C P.J. Higgins (elected free agency; signed a minor league contract with Arizona)
- SP Wade Miley (free agent; signed 1-year, $4.5 million contract with Milwaukee)
- 1B/OF Alfonso Rivas (elected free agency; signed a minor league contract with San Diego)
- RP Erich Uelmen (traded to Philadelphia for cash considerations)
- IF Esteban Quiroz (traded to Philadelphia for cash considerations)
- OF Rafael Ortega (non-tendered; signed a minor league contract with the Yankees)
- DH Franmil Reyes (elected free agency; signed a minor league contract with Kansas City)
- SP Alec Mills (elected free agency; remains unsigned)
- SS Andrelton Simmons (elected free agency; remains unsigned)
- OF Clint Frazier (elected free agency; signed a minor league contract with Texas)
2023 Regular Season Preview:
The Everyday Regulars
Although Swanson and Bellinger will understandably dominate media coverage of the 2023 Cubs, second baseman and presumptive leadoff hitter Nico Hoerner enters the year coming off a 4.0 fWAR season. Expectations for the Stanford product in his final pre-arbitration year are high.
Hoerner is an elite contact bat, posting a mere 11.1% strikeout rate in 2022 en route to a .281/.327/.410 slash line. Hoerner’s walk rate (5.4% in 2022) leaves something to be desired for a leadoff hitter, but he makes enough contact to make up for it, and despite his poor average exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and barrel rate, he still managed to reach double-digit home runs for the first time in his career last year.
Paired with his sparkling defense, which should be even better following the move to second base, Hoerner has All-Star potential in 2023.
Ian Happ, a first-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner in 2022, comes into his walk year after a solid year at the plate, hitting .271/.342/.440 with 17 home runs (120 wRC+) in 158 games. An elevated BABIP (.336), career-low ISO (.169), and a wOBA 33 points higher than his expected wOBA (.306) are cause for some regression-related concerns, but Happ should benefit from hitting in front of the newly acquired Swanson.
See the Players to Watch section below for a profile on RF Seiya Suzuki.
Patrick Wisdom returns to Wrigleyville after appearing in a career-high 134 games last year. For the second consecutive year, Wisdom was among the worst hitters in baseball in terms of strikeout rate, despite actually improving on his 2021 percentage (from 40.9% in 2021 to 34.3% in 2022).
As shown below, Wisdom struggles mightily with pitches in the upper third of the strike zone and with low and outside pitches. Despite this, Wisdom was still an above-average hitter in 2022 (104 wRC+), thanks in large part to his 25 home runs and 9.9% walk rate.
Christopher Morel debuted with a bang in May of last year, homering in his first MLB plate appearance and remaining hot through June, including a 5-5 performance against the Reds on June 30, ending the month hitting .283/.339/494.
Those numbers dipped in July (.224/.333/.463) before plummeting in August (.183/.194/.380, with just one walk and 25 strikeouts for the month) and September (.189/.317/.434). If the bat rebounds, Morel should be in line to take over full-time at third base, but his positional versatility (Morel saw time at second base, shortstop, third base, left field, center field, and designated hitter in 2022) and 99th percentile arm strength should allow him to see regular starts regardless.
The Starting Rotation
Marcus Stroman’s first year in Chicago was solid, though not particularly spectacular. The veteran right-hander missed time in May due to COVID and went on the injured list in June with shoulder inflammation, but still managed to accumulate 138.2 innings and 2.0 fWAR over 25 starts.
His HR/9 ratio of 1.04 ticked up above his career average (0.86), but Stroman had better than MLB average numbers in barrel percentage allowed (5.4% vs. 6.7%) and sweet spot percentage (28.1% vs. 33.0%).
Finally, Stroman’s 3.76 FIP was 0.27 points higher than his xFIP, suggesting he may have been somewhat unlucky last year. Stroman does not miss a lot of bats, posting a career strikeout percentage of 20.0%, but with a 40.2% sinker usage rate last year, he should benefit from the Cubs’ improved middle infield defense, if he can push his ground ball rate closer to his early career figures in Toronto, where he hovered around 62% from 2015 to 2018.
See the Players to Watch section below for a profile on SP Justin Steele.
Drew Smyly started 22 games for the Cubs in 2022 and gave the team 1.3 fWAR over 106.1 innings. Interestingly, despite below average strikeout numbers last year, Smyly had a 78th percentile chase rate, leading to an 85th percentile average exit velocity allowed, to go along with his 79th percentile walk rate.
Re-signed to a two-year contract with $19.5 million guaranteed, expect Smyly to receive every opportunity to demonstrate he can be a healthy and effective member of the rotation, something the injury-plagued lefty has struggled to do since debuting with Detroit back in 2012.
Acquired by the Cubs in the deadline trade that sent reliever Scott Effross to the Yankees, Hayden Wesneski made his MLB debut in September. In 4 starts and two relief appearances, the 24-year-old impressed, posting a 2.18 ERA and 3.20 FIP in 33.0 innings, good enough to generate 0.7 fWAR in a very small sample.
Wesneski’s primary weapon, a sweeper that he threw 32% of the time in his MLB appearances last year, generated a 33.8% whiff rate last year (and this Tweet from Pitching Ninja nicely demonstrates its nastiness), and helped him throw an immaculate inning against the Pirates on September 22.
Expect an innings limit for Wesneski this year given that his 142.4 innings across AAA and MLB last year represent an increase from his previous career high of 130.1 in A+, AA and AAA in 2021, but his development should be a key storyline this year.
Kyle Hendricks lost much of last season to a capsular tear in his right shoulder, finishing the year with his lowest innings total (84.1) since his debut season in 2014, excluding the shortened 2020 season.
Prior to the injury, Hendricks’ 2021 struggles seemed to have carried over into 2022 as both his ERA (4.80) and FIP (4.82) sat at least a full point higher than his career averages (3.46 and 3.80). Normally reliant on generating ground balls via a pitch mix nearly evenly split between a sinker (30.9%) and a changeup (30.7%), his 2022 ground ball rate of 36.2% was nearly 10% lower than his 46.0% career average.
Both the Cubs and Hendricks will hope to see a return to form in what could be his last year in Chicago; Hendricks has a vesting option for 2024 at $16 million with a $1.5 million buyout.
Brandon Hughes, the only left-handed reliever currently on the 40-man roster, debuted out of the bullpen for the Cubs last season and quietly put together a solid season, throwing 57.2 innings and collecting eight saves after beginning the year with AA Tennessee. Knee inflammation this spring has put his status for opening day in question, but Hughes should be a key arm when healthy.
The converted outfielder, who only began pitching full-time in 2019, possesses 91st percentile whiff percentage, driven by a slow slider (82.9 MPH average velocity), and a running fastball that breaks 61% more than the Major League average four-seamer.
Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson give the Cubs a pair of unique, multi-inning options. Both righties could also make a handful of starts this year, but the current expectation is that each will begin the year in the bullpen in Chicago.
Injuries have limited Alzolay’s MLB career thus far, including his six-game campaign last season, but he flashed high strikeout potential in his very limited sample, registering 19 punchouts to just 2 walks over 13.1 innings from September 17 onward.
Thompson appeared in 29 big league games last year, making 17 starts and throwing 115.0 innings, showing a promising walk rate improvement at 8.9% over his debut season in 2021 in which he walked 12.4% of hitters he faced. Thompson has a uniquely high spin rate four-seam fastball, which offsets his lack of premium velocity.
Julian Merryweather, the hard-throwing reliever picked up from Toronto through an offseason trade, should begin the year in Chicago given his lack of remaining minor league options.
The Cubs will hope to unlock some additional swing-and-miss from Merryweather, who despite registering in the 94th percentile of fastball velocity in 2022, has yet to consistently post an above-average strikeout rate in parts of 3 MLB seasons.
Rowan Wick remains a later inning option. A converted catcher/OF, Wick had 9 saves for the Cubs in 2022 and should see action in medium-to-high leverage situations. His peripheral numbers in 2022, including a 5.32 expected ERA and .430 xWOBACON portend trouble despite his decent results last year.
Other names to know: Jeremiah Estrada, Ryan Borucki, Roenis Elías, Tyler Duffey, Mark Leiter, Jr., Jordan Wicks, Javier Assad
Player to Watch #1: RF Seiya Suzuki
The Cubs bet big on Seiya Suzuki in the 2022 offseason, signing the five-time NPB All-Star to a five-year, $85 million deal to become the club’s every day right fielder. Suzuki proceeded to win April’s NL Rookie of the Month after posting a .279/.398/.529 slash line, but had an up-and-down performance throughout the rest of the year.
Suzuki hit just .211/.278/.338 in May with 0 home runs before being sidelined by a finger injury on May 26 that would keep him out of action until July 4. Overall, Suzuki managed to produce a .262/.336/.433 line, good for a 116 wRC+ in 111 games and finishing with 2.0 fWAR for the year.
The oblique strain suffered during Spring Training is cause for concern, but Suzuki’s underlying hitting metrics are reason for optimism. While his 24.8% strikeout rate and 8.8% walk rate are not particularly noteworthy, his 90th percentile chase rate certainly is.
Suzuki very rarely leaves the strike zone to go after bad pitches. Although his 63rd percentile average exit velocity suggests he didn’t drive pitches consistently, his maximum exit velocity for 2022 of 111.3 MPH puts him in the top 25% of MLB hitters.
Dan Szymborski at Fangraphs recently pegged Suzuki as an offensive breakout candidate, citing the importance of not ignoring NPB statistics when evaluating a player after his first year in MLB.
Let this be a reminder that Suzuki was an absolute force offensively during much of his time with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, flashing 25-38 home run power from 2016 to 2021 and posting an OPS over 1.000 in three of those seasons (and never below .936), while also winning a Central League Golden Glove Award five times over that span.
As long as the oblique issue doesn’t become a lingering problem, and Suzuki is otherwise able to remain on the field, look for him to establish himself as a star in Chicago this season.
Player to Watch #2: 1B Matt Mervis
Given that he signed as an undrafted free agent following the shortened 2020 MLB Draft and put up pedestrian numbers in 2021 at Low-A Myrtle Beach, Cubs fans could be forgiven for not knowing the name Matt Mervis prior to 2022. That is no longer the case after a year in which the Duke product absolutely exploded onto the prospect scene.
Mervis began the year with High-A South Bend, remaining there for only 27 games, because he simply raked over that span, putting up a video game slash line of .350/.389/.650 and 7 home runs for an absurd 181 wRC+.
The organization promoted Mervis to AA, where he played 53 games and continued to mash, hitting .300/.370/.596 with 14 home runs, resulting in a 147 wRC+. The Cubs challenged Mervis even further, pushing him up to AAA to finish the season. His response? A .297/.383/.593 line over 240 plate appearances in 57 games, with 15 home runs and a 152 wRC+.
Following the season, Mervis won the 2022 Cubs Minor League Player of the Year Award and was sent to the Arizona Fall League. Playing for the Mesa Solar Sox, Mervis continued his absolutely ridiculous 2022 by slashing .291/.344/.655, leading the AFL in home runs with 6 and ISO at .364, while being named an AFL Fall Star and winning the 2022 Fall Stars Game MVP.
Assuming one insane year of production across minor league levels will translate to MLB would be foolish, but the promise that Mervis showed in 2022 is massive. Further, Mervis was a two-way player in college, splitting time between the mound and the corner infield spots, but with his focus solely on playing first base now, he could be a late bloomer who sticks.
While the bat will have to carry him to an extreme degree as a corner infielder with no positional versatility, an average glove, and below-average speed, Mervis could be an impact player in Chicago as soon as May of this year. Expect to see him begin the year in AAA, but plan on his name being in the Chicago lineup early in the first half of 2022.
Player to Watch #3: SP Justin Steele
Effective starting pitchers that rely on a two-pitch mix are exceedingly rare, but Justin Steele was just that for the Cubs in 2022. Between his four-seam fastball (56.8% usage rate) that sits in the top 5 percent of MLB fastball spin rates and a slider (31% usage rate) that helped him miss barrels better than 95% of MLB starters last year, Steele gives the Cubs a truly unique third started behind Stroman and Taillon.
As pointed out by CBS’s R.J. Anderson in August of last year, Steele’s fastball has been one of the most interesting in baseball in terms of seam-shifted wake, featuring the second-highest deviation in spin-based movement compared to observed movement among MLB lefties.
That said, just being different isn’t enough for an MLB starter: you also have to be good. Steele was quietly very good in 2022, hurling his way to a 3.18 ERA and 3.20 FIP while generating 2.6 fWAR, all while on an innings limit set by the organization that held him to just 119.0 IP for the year. Steele has also posted a ground ball percentage over 50% in each of his two MLB seasons, which could lead to even better results this year with the improved defense up the middle.
2023 Record Prediction: 83-79
The range of possible outcomes for this team is massive. We could see breakouts from multiple players like Hoerner, Suzuki, Steele, and Mervis. A return to form from Bellinger, Hendricks, and Mancini. Maybe a continuation of Swanson’s success from the last two years, or the development of some of the bullpen arms. A welcomed sight would be a positively shocking offensive output from the catcher platoon (or, more likely, a trade for a catcher that can hit).
That’s a lot that could go right, and a lot that could go wrong, but this is a team that could conceivably win the NL Central.
On the flipside of that coin, there are so many things that could go wrong for the Cubs in 2023. Maybe Hoerner’s power stroke never develops and he remains nothing more than a solid contact hitter, and Mervis comes back to earth.
Perhaps Swanson’s recent offensive production proves to be more of a fluke than something worth $177 million and Bellinger’s slide continues. What if Suzuki is bothered by the oblique all year or another key piece goes down and misses extended time? The league could adjust to Steele’s unique pitch mix and an unproven bullpen lacking an elite option loses several late leads.
The Cubs likely finish ahead of the Pirates and Reds this year even if all of these nightmare scenarios come to fruition, but it just goes to illustrate how tough it is to know where this team will be in October.
Reality often lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes. I think this team finishes slightly above .500 at 83-79, with a mixture of young talent development (particularly from Hoerner and Steele) and some disappointing veteran performances (Bellinger being the big one).
That said, if the team is within striking distance of a playoff spot at the deadline, I expect the front office to be smart but aggressive. You don’t sign players like Swanson and Taillon to big money deals to sit on your hands and finish in the middle of the pack. A return to the postseason may not be in the cards this year, but it’s coming soon for this team.
Categories: 2023 Season Preview, Articles, Season Analysis
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