The hardest part of breaking up is usually moving on. For the Cubs, the hardest part was how long the relationship dragged on. Chicago’s clubhouse had to be a really uncomfortable place last season. The writing was on the wall like a big graffiti art piece that the team was going to undergo a lot of changes. The core of the 2016 World Series team had already started to move on, but the last remaining players were going to be leaving the Windy City.
Anthony Rizzo went first. Kris Bryant and Javier Baez went the next day. It had been a long time coming, as ownership was pinching pennies and crying poor, and the team was ready to move into something of a rebuild. It became a matter of “when” not “if” and the team played under that dark cloud for a while.
Nobody remembers that the Cubs were a 38-27 team through 65 games last season; most people remember that the team finished 20 games under .500 at 71-91. Playing the last 97 games to a 55-win pace over a 162-game season would be inexcusable under any other circumstances. This, however, was the end of an era.
With a new one ushered in and only a couple of remaining veterans, the Cubs are hopeful that this season will be the start of a new push towards the playoffs.
The Cubs were a below-average offense last season, even with the contributions of Rizzo, Bryant, Baez and others. That would seem to be a bad sign going forward, but some of this season’s primary contributors had quality seasons in 2021. Ian Happ hit 25 home runs and walked almost 12% of the time over 535 plate appearances. Willson Contreras had another fine year with 21 homers and a 109 wRC + from his catcher position. Patrick Wisdom led the team with 28 homers and was one of the better overall bats with a 115 wRC + .
The problem for the Cubs is that nobody dramatically stood out offensively to increase the margin for error. Wisdom struck out almost 41% of the time to go with his 28 home runs. Happ struck out almost 30% of the time and only posted a .226 batting average and a .323 OBP as a result. Contreras was also a windmill with a 29% K%. The strikeouts really cut into the offensive value for a lot of players that did a lot of good things.
Rafael Ortega was a pleasant surprise in his 330 plate appearances with a 120 wRC + and 12 stolen bases for a team that never really ran. Frank Schwindel hit 13 homers in just 56 games and led the team with a 163 wRC + . All of these guys are back in the mix and every one of them showed some level of promise during the 2021 season. Even Nico Hoerner managed to post an above average wRC + despite zero home runs in 170 plate appearances.
There are redeeming qualities for these guys. They’re going to look really bad sometimes because of all of the strikeouts, but a lot of those guys hit for power or walk at a pretty high rate. Against high-strikeout pitchers, the Cubs may have a really tough time; against guys with average or below average whiff rates and numbers, they can have a lot of success.
There are a few guys that will put bat to ball. Hoerner is one of them, even if he doesn’t generate a lot of power, and Schwindel is another. But, the head of the class in that department is Nick Madrigal. The Cubs got him from their South Side neighbors in the Craig Kimbrel deal. They also got a really good reliever in Codi Heuer, but he had to have Tommy John surgery.
In any event, Madrigal has had 324 plate appearances at the MLB level and has struck out 24 times. That’s not a typo. He struck out 37 times in 707 plate appearances at Oregon State and 21 times in 705 plate appearances in the minors. We’re talking about the best bat-to-ball player in the entire league. Not surprisingly, Madrigal has been a .300 hitter at basically every level. He’s a throwback to say the least.