Chicago Cubs 2023 Season Preview
One of last year’s season win total misfires was the Chicago Cubs. They made it interesting late in the season, but ultimately fell short with just a three-game improvement from 2021 to 2022. The Cubs had five straight losing seasons from 2010-14, so things aren’t that bad as of yet, but a little bit of panic may set in if Chicago makes another small improvement in 2023.
The Cubs spent a lot of money upgrading the lineup and pitching staff. Drew Smyly is the only free agent that they kept out of the 10 that they had. Instead, the front office opted to bring in reinforcements from around the league and picked up several notable names, including Dansby Swanson, Trey Mancini, Cody Bellinger, Eric Hosmer, Jameson Taillon and Michael Fulmer.
Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of what the Cubs are doing. If you’re going to commit to a rebuild, commit to a rebuild. The core from their 2016 World Series aged out and went elsewhere, so they were in a position to let a lot of guys sink or swim and I feel like that’s the only way to know nowadays. This is still a rich farm system with Pete Crow-Armstrong, Matt Mervis, Nick Madrigal, Brennan Davis, Hayden Wesneski and others, but now they’re opting to thread the needle of both rebuilding and contending.
Maybe it works. At least Hosmer, Bellinger, Mancini and others are on short-term contracts and could net even more prospects. Plus, the NL Central teams look vulnerable outside of the Cardinals. We’ll see how it all works, but the Cubs have this weird mix of youthful upside and big leaguers with something to prove. Maybe in about 2,000 words, I’ll be on board.
Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.
2023 Chicago Cubs Odds
(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 18)
World Series: +8000
Yes +310 / No -380
Chicago Cubs Offense
There is no denying that this offense needed help. Last year’s patchwork group put together a 98 wRC+, but the best hitter was catcher Willson Contreras and he moved on. We actually saw a lot of good things from some of the younger players who are not blocked. Ian Happ had a 120 wRC+ and a solid 3.5-fWAR season. Happ focused more on making contact and it paid some dividends with a lower K% and the highest batting average of his career. He did sacrifice some walks in the process and also lost some power.
Happ’s Hard Hit% stayed north of 40%, but his Barrel% went from 11.2% to 6.5%. His batted ball distribution was similar, but his HR/FB% went down from 24.3% to 11.9%, even though his average launch angle was up a degree and his average exit velocity went up. I’m not sure what to make of that and whether or not his power will return this season. As a switch hitter, Happ seemed to put a lot of time and emphasis into swinging right-handed at the expense of what he did left-handed, which is often the power side for switch hitters. I kind of wonder what happens if it all clicks this season and if that’s possible.
Nico Hoerner is a really fun player. He was an elite defender and an above average bat with 10 homers and 20 steals. He, too, took a more aggressive approach last season with a decrease in K%, but also a big decrease in BB%. Unlike Happ, he doesn’t really make a lot of high-quality contact and virtually never barrels the ball, but he’s sort of a throwback type that has a high-grade contact tool. He’s what the Cubs hoped Madrigal would be at the plate to give them a bunch of dudes that put balls in play.
The big debut last season was Christopher Morel, who hit 16 homers and swiped 10 bags in 425 plate appearances. He’s always showcased a three true outcomes (K, BB, HR) profile, but it was nice to see the power tool translate at the MLB level with a 13.6% Barrel%. The question is how he’ll fare if he’s put into a utility role. It’s hard to keep an aggressive swing profile like his sharp in a part-time situation.
Seiya Suzuki had a nice debut season in the States, but his sophomore season has been delayed by an oblique injury in camp. He posted a 116 wRC+ with a solid .262/.336/.433 slash line as a 27-year-old rook. Suzuki is actually projected to be better this season when taking into account what he did in Japan and the fact that he knows the pitchers better now. When Suzuki returns, the Cubs will basically have the lineup they envisioned with all of their free agent signings.
There’s some low-key power potential now on this team. Happ still has power upside and I’d expect Suzuki to drive the ball a bit more in his second season, but Patrick Wisdom hit 25 homers last season after bashing 28 in about half a season worth of plate appearances in 2021. Like Happ, his HR/FB% dropped, but he still ran a 14.2% Barrel% and a 46% Hard Hit%.
Smart people like Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton have suggested that lineup protection is a myth, but it is fair to say that some of the Cubs’ better hitters probably didn’t see what they might see this season with some proven veterans around the lineup. Bellinger is on a “prove it” deal after back-to-back atrocious offensive seasons. He’ll probably never be the guy that hit 47 homers in 2019, but he’s totaled 41 homers over the last three seasons in 1,143 PA. Chicago isn’t an easy media market, but he’s no longer in a World Series or bust atmosphere with the Dodgers.
Mancini hit 35 jacks during the juiced ball year of 2019, but he still has the chance at being a really productive hitter. He, too, is on something of a “prove it” deal after dropping to a 105 wRC+ in 2021 and a 104 wRC+ in 2022. He also really struggled after getting sent to the Astros with a 77 wRC+. Hosmer doesn’t fit the power production narrative, but he’s a professional hitter and he’s virtually playing for free in Chicago’s eyes since the Padres are covering a lot of his salary.
I mentioned in my Braves preview that I don’t think the Cubs are going to get the Swanson they might think. Swanson had an outlier season mauling fastballs that pitchers inexplicably kept throwing him, and he was way better defensively than he had been any other season. He’s still a fine Major League player. His 116 wRC+ was a career high and his other best full season was a 99 wRC+ in 2021. I think he’s coming back to earth, which takes him from a six-win player to a three-win player.
What the Cubs have done is keep the best parts of their young core and place free agents around them. It could be a really useful strategy and there are some mentors in the clubhouse for some of the young guys. I don’t think Tucker Barnhart has any chance of replicating what Contreras did, but there are a lot of empty plate appearances being replaced by the others mentioned above. I’m still not convinced threading the needle is the right move, but it should make for a much better offense.
Lastly, the Cubs hired a new hitting coach in Dustin Kelly, who was plucked from the Dodgers organization prior to 2021 and served as the minor league hitting coordinator the last two seasons. He also has three assistant hitting coaches in Juan Cabreja, Jim Adduci and Johnny Washington. The Cubs are trying to pull a page from the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants playbooks of tailoring hitting plans to individual hitters instead of one broad approach. I like it.
Chicago Cubs Pitching
The offense being close to league average should have been enough for me last season with my win total wager, but the pitching staff was not close to league average. The Cubs were 20th in ERA and 25th in FIP as a group. That was a huge upgrade from when they were one of the five worst pitching staffs in baseball in 2021, but still not good enough to win enough games.
The Cubs used 17 different starting pitchers, which was one of the main problems. Marcus Stroman led the way with 25 starts and had strong numbers with a 3.50 ERA and a 3.76 FIP. Justin Steele had a fine season with a 3.18 ERA and a 3.20 FIP in 119 innings of work over 24 starts. Smyly was the only free agent the Cubs retained because he had a 3.47 ERA in 106.1 innings, though he did have a 4.23 FIP, so I’d be wary of him heading into 2023.
Stroman, Steele, Smyly and Adrian Sampson, who had a 3.28 ERA with a 3.93 FIP in 98.2 innings as a starter, make up 80% of the rotation. Newcomer Jameson Taillon is the other guy in the mix. I’m really torn on this pitching staff because the starters don’t miss bats. Steele is the only one that had over a strikeout per inning as a starter and he clearly has the most upside of the bunch. Otherwise, there are a lot of pitch-to-contact guys dependent on defense.
Hayden Wesneski could change that and be a guy with over a strikeout per inning. He had a 2.18 ERA and a 3.20 FIP in 33 innings with the Cubs last season after performing well in Triple-A. Projection systems aren’t high on him, but he has a filthy slider and keeps the ball in the park.
But, with the others, that’s how you end up with a big discrepancy between ERA and FIP. The Cubs navigated it last season to some degree and might be even better prepared this season. Swanson is a solid defensive shortstop. Hoerner should be a plus defender anywhere. And Happ was very solid by defensive runs saved in left field. Bellinger is a plus defender. Barnhart has historically been a good backstop. I think this will be a quality defensive squad.
With that in mind, I have to think a little more highly of this rotation than I otherwise would. I am concerned about Stroman and Steele as two big GB% guys in a post-shift world, but the Cubs will cover a ton of ground at SS and 2B with Swanson and Hoerner. Taillon slides in as another pitch-to-contact, low-walk guy. Steele’s walk rate is offset by his high K%. But, that will be the big thing for this group. They’ll have to run on the right side of batted ball variance. I think this is a group with a low ceiling, but a high floor.
It flew under the radar, but the Cubs were fifth in ERA in the second half last season. Of course, they were also 22nd in FIP, so they absolutely ran on the right side of batted ball luck and high-leverage variance. They had the highest LOB% (79.6%) in the second half, so they stranded a high rate of runners. For a defense that ranked 27th in Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, that seems like a lot of good luck.
A lot of guys in the bullpen outpitched their true talent levels looking from an ERA-FIP standpoint. This was a closer-by-committee situation and some of the team’s best relievers were traded in Scott Effross and David Robertson as the season went along. I’m not sure who will fall into what roles with this group. I’m actually not terribly high on this bullpen, but it could surprise.
I do like the additions of Fulmer and Brad Boxberger as proven veterans, but Boxberger has a pretty low ceiling. I think Alzolay and Keegan Thompson as relievers could be really interesting and I think they could be high-leverage guys by season’s end. Thompson may stay stretched out as starter insurance, but he actually misses bats.
Considering the Cubs were 21st in reliever ERA and 28th in FIP, the bar to clear is pretty low. Like the rotation, I think this group has a low ceiling, but the floor is relatively high with an interesting array of arms.
After a deplorable first half with a record of 35-57, the Cubs actually went 39-31 in the second half and had a +12 run differential. They even finished the season on an 8-2 run over their last 10 games and went 18-12 over the last 30.
The Cubs blew 49 leads last season, which was among the most in baseball. Despite a bad bullpen, they were 26-27 in one-run games.
One thing I found weird about the Cubs throughout the season is that they got chances with men on base, but did very little with them. Chicago was actually sixth in plate appearances with RISP, but batted .230 (28th). The strange thing about the volume and the relative ineptitude is that BaseRuns didn’t look any more favorably on them, as they were projected for a 73-89 record with that alternate standings metrics that removes context and just throws all outcomes together to create expected runs scored and expected runs allowed.
Player to Watch
SP Justin Steele: For nerds like me, Steele is fascinating. He ranked in the 80th percentile in average exit velocity and 82nd percentile in Hard Hit%. As an extreme ground ball guy with low exit velocities against, he was in the 95th percentile in Barrel%. Steele also has really good spin rates. His fastball spin rate ranks in the 95th percentile, so it is hard for hitters to center on. Steele also has a plus slider that opposing hitters batted .136 on with a .216 SLG last season. He is a rare guy that can be a two-pitch pitcher and he was with nearly 88% of his pitches classified as those two offerings.
He doesn’t get a lot of chases outside the zone, yet still managed to run a borderline elite rate of hard contact against. If he ever added some more swing and miss, he’d be deadly.
Chicago Cubs Season Win Total Pick
Turns out I am on board. I think this is one of the more interesting teams in the NL. We know that the Braves, Mets, Cardinals, Padres and Dodgers will all be really good. The Phillies should be pretty good. The Nationals, Rockies and Pirates will be really bad. There are a few teams in between that have a wide range of outcomes and the Cubs are one of them. There is a realistic possibility that Wesneski steps in and performs well and Steele takes a leap. If Stroman, Taillon and Smyly stay healthy, this has the chance to be one of the most improved rotations in baseball.
The lineup has an intriguing mix of hitters and a whole lot of new faces around what was the best of the Cubs position player group to return from last season. It really isn’t a stretch to see a four-game improvement from this group, especially with teams like the Reds and Pirates, along with what I think is a downturn from the Brewers, in the division. The Cubs also finished last season on a pretty high note and have attempted to capitalize on that.
This is a team with a high floor. I’m not sure how high the ceiling is, but .500 is not a big ask. I like the mix of arms in the bullpen, especially if guys like Alzolay or Thompson work their way into high-leverage spots. I liked this team last season for a lot of its core pieces and now they’ve infused a good bit of MLB talent. Like I mentioned, the strategy may not be what I’d employ, but there are a lot more Major League-caliber players on this roster than last season and I think it produces results.
I like the Cubs Over 77.5 wins and this would be one worthy of a wager. I also really like the Giants/Dodgers approach to hitting with individualized coaching. The Cubs trimmed the fat and I think they’re very much in play for .500 or better.
Pick: Over 77.5