The Chicago Cubs have not been quiet in the offseason. They were not the Mets, who spent almost a billion dollars in free agency on top choices like Carlos Correa and Justin Verlander, but they definitely made moves. The Cubs were not completely silent last year with signings of Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki. The idea of free agent signings is very simple, to make the team better for the upcoming year or, in some cases, better for the long term. Though the offseason is far from over, the big signings are finished or just finishing up. Consequently, it is a good time to check in how the Cubbies fared.
Cody Bellinger: Grade C
Cody Bellinger fits the bill for possibly making the team better in 2023. Since the contract is only for 1 year, if Bellinger has a poor year, he won’t be back in 2024. If he proves himself, his salary request will be so high, it will most likely be prohibitive for the Cubs to get behind. Yet, if he does return to form, it is possible he helps get the Cubs rebooted with a playoff appearance this year.
Bellinger is a former Rookie of the Year (2017) and the NL MVP in 2019, the same year he won a Gold Glove for center field. In 2019, he hit a massive 47 homeruns. From debuting in the show until his MVP season in 2019 he slashed .278/.369/.559 with a 144 OPS+ (44 points above the MLB average). In 2020, injuries started to plague Bellinger and he never totally got his swing back. From 2020 to 2022 he slashed .203/.272/.366. He hit only 41 homers over that period, 6 less than in 2019, and his OPS+ was cut in half to 74, which is the third lowest in MLB among hitters with over 1000 at-bats.
He is still an elite fielder, but the hitting, at its current rate does not help the Cubs move the needle. Because this is almost assuredly a one-year deal, it also doesn’t add to the Cubs strategic plan. Presumably, Bellinger will play center, with Ian Happ in left and Suzuki in right. From a tactical standpoint, the move on Bellinger fills a specific need in the everyday lineup.
The outfield free agent class was not as strong as other positions. Notable players that were available were Andrew Benintendi, Adam Duvall, Brandon Nimmo, Kevin Kiermaier, Aaron Judge, and, of course, Dexter Fowler. Aaron Judge wasn’t really on the table for the Cubs, but Nimmo could have been a huge acquisition. Presumably, Nimmo was locked into the Mets from the beginning. In that case, Bellinger becomes an interesting move at a decent price ($17 million) for the short term (1 year). The problem is that when a player has been on Bellinger’s current trajectory for so long it is hard to understand the circumstance where he can break out of it. Let’s hope the Friendly Confines can make it happen.
Jameson Taillon: Grade B
Taillon counts as more of a strategic move as he signed a four-year deal for a meaningful amount of money ($68 million). There is no shortage of news on the mega deals for pitchers like Jacob DeGrom, Justin Verlander, and Carlos Rodon. The Cubs clearly didn’t want to get into the multi hundreds of million dollar game for the big stars. Going to the next level, Nathan Eovaldi (3.87 ERA), Chris Bassitt (3.42), Tyler Anderson (2.52), Jose Quintana (2.93), Taijuan Walker (3.49), Zach Eflin (4.04), Taillon, and Ross Stripling (3.01) where next in line. All these pitchers are around the same age (33ish) except for Walker (29), Eflin, and Taillon (33).
After pitching 191 innings in 2018 with a 3.20 ERA, Taillon had Tommy John surgery in 2019 and missed the shortened 2020 season. Since rebooting in 2021, Taillon posted a 4.30 ERA and 3.91 ERA for the Yankees. When you combine a 2022 campaign with 151/32 strikeout to walk ratio and a 1.128 WHIP the word that comes to mind is “Solid.” With the exception of Stripling, Anderson, and Quintana (can’t believe the Cardinals are not going to bring him back), Taillon’s ERA is in line with the rest of the pack. Taillon is a solid, consistent starter who the Cubs should be able to count on for a decent amount of innings, to win most of his games, and to help coach what should be a young rotation next year. You can’t help but feel that Taillon is the guy the Yankees didn’t want. They let Taillon go and upgraded to Carlos Rodon.
It feels like the Cubs could have gone after Rodon, Anderson, or Stripling as well unless this is a bet on the future. If the vision is that the Cubs rotation looks like Stroman, Keegan Thompson, Justin Steele, Taillon, and one of Adbert Alzolay, Javier Assad, or Hayden Wesneski, the decision looks clearer. Stroman didn’t have a great first half of 2022, but, like the rest of the entire pitching staff, he was fantastic in the second half. In 2022, Thompson and Steele proved that they are not just MLB ready pitchers, but really good MLB pitchers. The Cubs love Alzolay as does the fan base, but consistency and injuries have been issues. Assad and Wesneski looked hot last year. Wesneski, especially, looked like a potential rookie of the year candidate in 2023.
Steele and Thompson are just getting started and if they continue their assent as MLB pitchers the effects will be devastating for opposing hitters. Though Taillon is expected to be number 2 in the rotation, you could imagine a situation in 2023 or 2024 where he is number 5. Even if not all the young pitchers make the starting rotation on Day 1 of the season, the bullpen could be highly enhanced with those left behind. If this bet pays off, the Cubs could be looking at anywhere between 3 to 4 shutdown pitchers in the rotation. Taillon then becomes a rock in the rotation while the younger pitchers go through their ups and downs in the early years. There is a scenario where the Cubs have one of the best, youngest, cheapest rotations in the next 1 to 3 years.
It isn’t clear where this leaves Kyle Hendricks. Hendricks is that last member of the 2016 World Series team and manager David Ross has a soft spot for a guy that was critical to that season, and the seasons after. However, it doesn’t seem like Hendricks’ stuff works the way it used to and it doesn’t seem like he makes the starting rotation. Middle relief is valuable and with the new Cubs rotation throwing in the mid 90’s, he could be a valuable change of pace out of the bullpen.
Brad Boxberger: Grade B
Over the last couple of years, the Cubs tinkered with a strategy of signing several one-year contracts for strong, veteran bullpen pitchers in 2022 (see Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin, Chris Martin, David Robertson and Mychal Givens). This strategy continues with Brad Boxberger on a one year $2.8 million contract.
For Milwaukee, Boxberger was solid out of the bullpen even though they declined his option for 2023. Boxberger had a 2.94 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 27 walks. As a career, he has a solid 3.44 ERA, .198 batting average against lefties, .230 against righties, in 11 years which is a decent sample size to consider.
The hole for the Cubs, after dealing David Robertson at the deadline last year, is the closing role. Rowan Wick and Brandon Hughes come to mind, but neither have been natural closers.
Dansby Swanson: Grade A
The Cubs made a big splash with the signing of Dansby Swanson. It is hard to believe that his $177 million contract is only second highest of all-time to Jason Heyward’s $184 million. Though Swanson was the last of the big four shortstops to be signed (Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, and Xander Bogaerts round out the class), it is too simple to say the Cubs didn’t go after the top guys. They were connected with each shortstop, but as the deal parameters eclipsed hundreds of millions and over 10 years, the Cubs didn’t want to play that game; maybe still stung from the Heyward deal. In Swanson, the Cubs get the best defensive shortstop of the bunch with top offensive skills.
Swanson is the reigning national league Gold Glove winner at shortstop with a 21.4 defensive runs above average, per FanGraph (Cubs Nico Hoerner came in a phenomenal fifth with 14.4). He was fourth in homeruns for shortstops last year with 25, top among the free agent class, and he was second in FanGraph’s fWAR (6.4) right behind Francisco Lindor (6.8). Swanson had a very respectable .277 batting average, .329 OBP, and a .776 OPS. While Turner and Bogaerts are career .300ish hitters, Correa hit .291 for the first time in his career, and Swanson’s 96 RBI’s was second to Turner’s 100.
Swanson is the real deal and elevates the Cubs’ lineup and the entire team with massive offensive and defensive weaponry. Swanson is a winner as he was part of 5 Divisional titles with the Braves and a World Series win. With Willson Contreras gone to the Cardinals, Swanson and Ian Happ will elevate to clubhouse leadership very quickly. Presumably, Hoerner (who established himself as a great shortstop in 2022) will move to second base where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2020, and Christopher Morel will move to third base. From a defensive standpoint, this could be one of the best in MLB. Patrick Wilson will probably DH in 2023.
The lineup feels fairly set at this point with the free agent signings. First base, closer, and catcher remain open decisions and will probably be filled from the current roster and prospect pool. Overall, the Cubs are fielding a competitive lineup in 2023. With the Cardinals and Brewers in the division, no playoff appearance is guaranteed, but there is no reason the Cubs shouldn’t be competitive. With more free agent signings in 2023, the fanbase should be very excited to be in Playoff and World Series contention in the next couple of years.