After a year spent in the wilderness, the Chicago Cubs gave fans reason for cautious optimism this offseason. I say ‘cautious’ because although Tom Ricketts actually opened his much-maligned chequebook over the winter, it’s still difficult to gauge just how good or bad this team is likely to be.
According to the latest PECOTA standings, the Cubs are on track to win 76.3 games in 2023, giving them a 7.4% chance of making the playoffs. That isn’t great given that they won 74 games in 2022, before adding Dansby Swanson, Trey Mancini, Cody Bellinger and Jameson Taillon, amongst others, to their “improved, but clearly flawed roster”, as Sahadev Sharma described it in The Athletic last week.
While it’s tough not to be intrigued by the pieces the Cubs have added (David Ross certainly is, as below), it’s important to remember that they don’t have a bona fide superstar, their rotation doesn’t offer a lot of swing-and-miss and the bulk of the bats they have acquired are coming off down years.
Some internet murmurings have suggested that 2023 could be this iteration of the Cubs’ 2014 – an important stepping stone in the World Series-winning team’s journey to adding marquee free agent Jon Lester to a burgeoning core that went on to record 97 wins in 2015. It’s also worth noting that in 2014 the Cubs took a huge leap in their effort to transform a reclamation project by the name of Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner.
While there are definitely some similarities, the 2014 Cubs were considered to have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball – a theory that bore fruit the following year when that talent flooded into the major league team. This year, they were ranked tenth overall, behind division rivals the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Excitement may continue to grow around the likes of Pete Crow-Armstrong and Brennen Davis but how close either of them are to making the leap to the majors is yet to be determined.
PCA was named 14th overall on Fangraphs Top 100 Prospects List (the highest-ranked Cub), while Kevin Alcantara (73), Hayden Wesneski (88) and Cristian Hernandez (100) all also featured. As FullCountTommy pointed out on Twitter, the Cubs had eight prospects appear on top 100 lists this offseason – tied for third most with the Cleveland Guardians, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a deep system, even if the bulk of your prospects are some way off graduating. And if the Cubs do want to fast-track their rebuild, they could always flip a few of these pieces, particularly if a star player becomes available over the course of the season.
It seems as if they plan to continue to be patient though, as Tom Ricketts told The Athletic: “The boom and bust cycle that has been with so many clubs in baseball, we want to get out of that routine,” he said. “It didn’t work out coming out of the great teams we have in 2016, 2017, 2018. It just didn’t work out to be able to make the personnel moves to maintain a more consistent winner on the field.”
The ghost of Jose Quintana’s Cubs career clearly still clearly haunts the Chairman. But I for one appreciate the sentiment, particularly at this stage of the rebuild.
Jed Hoyer and his team need time to assess what exactly they have at their disposal. And while some have pointed out that they don’t yet have their Kris Bryant, they do, this time around, have a bunch of intriguing young pitchers such as Jordan Wicks, Cade Horton and Ben Brown, who all look destined for the starting rotation someday, while Wesneski is set to compete for a starter’s job this spring.
As keen as I am for the Cubs to be patient with their prospects, I, like a lot of the fanbase, also want to this to be the season where they actually lock some guys up.
Ian Happ had an impressive 2022 despite the fact that he played a large portion of it under the cloud of uncertainty cast by trade rumours galore. Despite surviving at last year’s deadline, he could be in for another difficult year with free agency looming in 2024. Nico Hoerner, meanwhile, remains under team control for three more years but plays elite in-field defence, hits well for contact and is already an inspiration for many of the team’s young players.
Both Happ and Hoerner have become leaders in the clubhouse and while they may not be capable of providing the kind of impact that Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez did in their respective primes, it feels important that the Cubs don’t let yet more homegrown players suffer the same fate. Particularly in light of what happened to Willson Contreras this offseason. They have, after all, only extended five homegrown players in the past 40 years, which is pretty dire for a franchise that had the best farm system in baseball less than ten years ago.
Still, there are plenty of positives to be found heading into the new campaign and if the Cubs can get further improvements out of the likes of Seiya Suzuki, Justin Steele, Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson as well as a boost from their new additions and some of the players around the fringes, they may be able to beat the odds, overcome the projections and perhaps even bring competitive summer baseball back to beautiful, historic Wrigley Field this season.
Featured image of Nico Hoerner by Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images
Sean Guest is the Chicago Cubs correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest