The Chicago Cubs ended the season winning 3 of 5 from the Reds in October. sweeping the New York Mets in September where I’d like to think the Cubs single handedly destroyed their chances at winning the NL East, and swept the Phillies in September which almost demolished their playoff run. In all, the Cubs went 39-31 after the All-Star break (5th best in the National League). Cubs pitching combined for a 2.89 ERA in the second half of the season which is third best in the MLB behind the Astros and the Dodgers – both clubs who have a chance at the World Series.
Though the overall season ended with a 74-88 record in third place in the NL Central, I see the season as a complete success. It is all about expectations. The White Sox were supposed to be in the World Series hunt and turned in an 81-81 season without even making the playoffs. The season was looked at as a complete disaster. The Cubs, who were supposed to be one of the worst teams in baseball, if not the worst team in baseball, surpassed expectations and showcased young talent and an incredibly deep farm system giving fans a glimpse of the strategy and a bright future. There is reason to believe the Cubs could be competitive next year.
What Went Right
I don’t think I have ever watched so much second half Cubs baseball when they clearly were not going to be playoff competitive. Seeing all the new rookies, there were 25 of them that received playing time this year, the enthusiasm, and the talent was an enormous amount of fun. Here are the fun facts:
Farm System Upgrade. Cubs owner, Tom Ricketts, quoted a statistic that the last 15 World Series winners had top 10 farm systems in the years prior to their championship. Currently, FanGraphs ranks the Cubs at 5th, up from 22nd in the preseason of 2021.
Nico Hoerner. Nico Hoerner is a great baseball player, not good, great. He didn’t have an injury free season, but it was better than anything in the past. He had 340 more at-bats then he has had in any other season, he tied his batting average high at .281 (which is really too bad because he hit over .300 until the end of the year), and was in striking range of his typical OPS (.736 this year compared to .751 last year). The key is that he nailed these metrics with playing a full season. Add in his exceptional defense and Hoerner is going to be an All-Star hitting .300 most years.
Ian Happ. Happ also had a career year. His 42 doubles, 72 RBI’s, and 9 stolen bases are career highs. Most importantly, his .271 batting average beats his career average by 22 points. Happ has always been great in one month of the year, typically September, but to produce all season long was exceptional, long overdue, and is what made him an All-Star. Though his home runs were down from last year, 17 to 25, fans are ecstatic.
Sophomore Pitching. Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele both made an imprint on their management. Thompson was stellar for most of the year. He slipped a bit at the end but still wound up with a 3.76 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 8.5 K/9. Through July, he had a 3.16 ERA. Justin Steele was the opposite. A bit of a slow start, he ended with a 3.18 ERA and an 8.4 K/9. At the end of May, Steele had a 5.40 ERA and consistently brought it down each month to a 3.18. In his last 15 starts, he had a 2.25 ERA and in his last 7, he had a .98 ERA. See you in the rotation in 2023.
Christopher Morel. Morel’s ending numbers didn’t match the way he came out at the beginning of his promotion to the Show, but he still had a respectable rookie year slashing .235/.308/.433 with a .741 OPS. His flexibility to move between infield and outfield and his energy is unparalleled. I like him most as the Cubs starting center fielder next year and I’d like to see his 16 home runs turn into at least 25.
Seiya Suzuki. Suzuki had too many injuries and, like Morel, his early numbers didn’t stick until the end of the year. But there is clearly something there. Speed, defense, and offense. Slashing .262/.336/.433 with a .770 is more than respectable. I think we’d like to see Suzuki be at least a 20 home run hitter with a 100 RBI’s.
Freshman Pitching. The rookies that pitched well are too many to count, but Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski deserve some call outs (probably Brandon Hughes as well). Javier Assad pitched in four games and finished with a 3.11 ERA. He gave up some hits and walks at times so his WHIP is a bloated 1.46, but Assad was a ton of fun to watch. I criticized the Scott Effross trade and hoped he did terrible with the Yankees. But Effross did even better. He had a 2.66 ERA with the Cubs and he has a 2.13 ERA with the playoff Yankees. But Hayden Wesneski is awesome. In 5 games he had a 2.18 ERA, .93 WHIP, and 9 k/9. He doesn’t have the personality of the other rookies, but we don’t care if he wins games.
What Do We Want
Ricketts and President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer have pledged to be involved in the free agent market this year. Meaning, they plan to spend some serious dough. Last year, Marcus Stroman and Suzuki were the big plays but I think we can expect bigger acquisitions this year.
Shortstop Sweepstakes. Like last year with Javier Baez, Corey Seager and others, the shortstop market could be ripe again with Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson and Carlos Correa (again). Nico Hoerner is a team player and could fill the hole at second base. Or if we believe in Nick Madrigal, move to third base and Patrick Wisdom becomes DH. I am probably partial to Turner or Bogaerts but wouldn’t complain about any of them.
Starting Pitcher. It is unclear if Kyle Hendricks still fits in the rotation. If we assume we have Stroman, Wesneski, Thompson and Steele, there is room for one more. I see Assad in the bullpen. Look for a major pitcher to hit the roster.
Bullpen. I would think that the Cubs would want to bring in an established closer which is such a tradition with the Cubs. From Bruce Sutter to Craig Kimbrel, the Cubs have always had a star closer. David Robertson was great this year and hopefully he will make an impact in the playoffs for the Phillies.
Power. Patrick Wisdom led the team with 25 home runs, and I think the Cubs could use one more power guy. Maybe Franmil Reyes is the guy, but not sure. Having an established 30 home run guy like Rizzo, Bryant, or Schwarber would be great.
We thought the Cubs season was going to be a complete waste of time this year. And for the first half, it was aggravating and unclear. For what the season was supposed to be, Hoyer, Dave Ross and the Ricketts have to be extremely pleased with the way it went and where it could go next year.