How the Cubs could return to contention in 2023 after promising signs in 2022

After a strong run of relevance in recent years — an understatement for much of the run — the Chicago Cubs haven’t been very nationally newsworthy for much of 2022. Fresh off the Golden Era of Cubs Baseball, will their return to relevance come in 2023? 

The 2022 season included some positive signs, both at the big-league level and in the minors. And though they will finish the 2022 season well below .500, there are reasons to be excited about the team moving forward. They could be a contender in 2023, in fact. Let’s dive in. 

Good signs in the majors

This one will come up again in the minor-league section, as the organization as a whole has done wonders this season with pitching development. Sure, it’s the fruits from labor the past several years, but the progress has really shown itself in 2022. 

We can start with Justin Steele. In 24 starts, he had a 3.18 ERA and struck 126 out in 119 innings. There were a few meltdowns that dragged his numbers down, too, and he finished strong with a 1.49 ERA in his last 10 starts. He’s absolutely a rotation fixture moving forward. 

To a lesser extent, Keegan Thompson emerged, too. He struggled with consistency and it’s possible he’s better suited as a long reliever or swing man (like a Ross Stripling type) than a full-time starter, but he’s definitely a keeper. 

Hayden Wesneski came to the Cubs at the trade deadline for reliever Scott Effross and has a 2.45 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 24 strikeouts against four walks in 22 innings. He’s 24 years old and looks the part. 

The big-league starters as a whole have been great since the break. Only the Dodgers and Astros have a better rotation ERA in the second half than the Cubs’ 3.15. Marcus Stroman has shown that there should be confidence he’ll have a good 2023. Adrian Sampson and Drew Smyly (he has a club option that the Cubs will surely pick up) have been good enough to warrant looks at important roles next season, too. 

Past the rotation, the biggest plus for the Cubs this season was Nico Hoerner. He’s mostly stayed healthy and is hitting .290 with a 111 OPS+ while having stolen 18 bases in 20 tries and playing great defense at short. He’d need to up both on-base percentage and slugging before being a star, but he’s a foundational player for sure. That wasn’t clear before this year. 

Ian Happ is also having a very good year. Seiya Suzuki has had a mixed bag of a season, but it seems like he’s really locked in down the stretch. He’s hit .337/.406/.535 in his last 25 games. 

Christopher Morel looks like he could be a full-time utility man with flashes of great upside, too. 

It looks like the Cubs might let catcher Willson Contreras walk. If so, they still have a position-player nucleus of Hoerner, Happ, Suzuki and Morel before they get to what could be a huge offseason. 

Good signs in the minors

Individually, we have to start with Matt Mervis, even if he wasn’t even drafted and wouldn’t be found on any prospect ranking lists from the spring. He’s hitting .310/.380/.610 with 39 doubles, 36 home runs and 119 RBI in 135 games between High-A (27 games), Double-A (53) and Triple-A (55) this season. He might be ready to take over first base as soon as next year. 

Alexander Canario also has clubbed 35 homers (24 games in High-A, 81 in Double-A and 18 in Triple-A). He also stole 23 bases. He’s played all three outfield positions and could handle center if need be. Brennen Davis had an injury-plagued down year, but could make strides and end up the center fielder as well. 

Of course, either of those guys would be keeping center field warm for Pete Crow-Armstrong. The 20-year-old, who was acquired from the Mets in 2021, played in 101 games (38 with Class A, 63 with High-A) and hit .312/.376/.520 with 20 doubles, 10 triples, 16 homers, 61 RBI, 89 runs, 32 stolen bases and some of the best defense in the minors. He’ll start with Double-A next season and maybe it won’t be too much longer after that before he’s in Wrigley. 

In general, the system as a whole this season is considered to have taken a big step forward. There is a lot more volume than there was two years ago. There were strides made with a good number of pitchers, too, as I alluded to earlier. Names to keep in mind for the near future: Jordan Wicks, Ben Brown, DJ Herz and Caleb Kilian (who debuted in June for a rough three-start stretch). ranked the Cubs 10th in baseball as of Aug. 23. Fangraphs has a future value calculator that has the Cubs fourth. The one critique — and where it’s most different than the group that ended up winning the World Series — is there’s a ton of depth but not really many, if any, elite-tier guys. Perhaps Crow-Armstrong becomes that elite-level guy, but otherwise most say they have a bunch of potentially good players with no stars (again, PCA might be the exception). 

Let’s put a pin in that and come back to it. 

Financial clout

The Cubs have the sunk cost of Jason Heyward’s $22 million left on the books for next season, but both sides have already agreed they are parting ways. The Cubs can afford it. Even with that, they appear to have a touch over $123 million moving on to 2023 while Suzuki is the only guaranteed salary past 2024. 

They have the wherewithal to roll out a payroll of $200 million or more. 

Things are more complicated, but this was simply a bare-bones breakdown to show that the Cubs can spend plenty of money in free agency this coming offseason. They can easily outspend anyone in their division and word from the North Side here late in the season indicates ownership (noticeably chairman Tom Ricketts) is on board with a bit of a spending spree this coming offseason. 

They could also, obviously, take on salary in trades. And this is where we go back to the deep farm system. If they have so many good depth pieces but lack star power, they could package prospects in order to land established big-league talent. 

How to proceed?

If they wish to contend soon, they’ll need to do some work, because while Hoerner/Happ/Suzuki/Morel is a decent start, it’s not nearly good enough without adding some major needle-movers. Just hoping for the help from the minors isn’t enough. In fact, one of the reasons to build up the farm is to use some of that prospect currency to trade for MLB help, as noted above. 

If they go the trade route, what if the Red Sox make Rafael Devers available? He’s only 25, the Cubs could afford to give him a monster extension, they have the prospect currency the Red Sox crave and he’s the type of player to build around as the superstar face of the franchise. 

Ozzie Albies is also someone who could be traded that might fit with the Cubs’ plans moving forward and his deal is incredibly team-friendly. 

And, of course, if the Angels make Shohei Ohtani available, the Cubs could make it work. 

As for free agency, word is the Cubs will drive hard into the shortstop market that includes Trea Turner, Carlos Correa (assuming he opts out), Xander Bogaerts (assuming he opts out) and Dansby Swanson. They’ll need to figure out how to make it work with Hoerner if they sign one of these guys, but that’s a bridge you cross if you get to it — plus, Hoerner is very good, but not good enough to pass on a major free agent due to his presence alone. 

In similar sentiment to the position players, the Cubs’ starting pitching is in decent shape, but also sorely needs at least one ace-caliber pitcher and probably another mid-rotation type. Adding two pitchers with Stroman, Steele and a returning Kyle Hendricks with Thompson as the sixth starter/long reliever would be ideal and that’s without even mentioning the presence of Wesneski. If it’s just one pitcher, they can add Smyly or Wesneski to the mix. Sampson is a fine depth option — not to mention so many of the younger guys, including the prospects and Javier Assad — and we’ve seen so often these days how important it is to have seven or eight options for rotation spots on contending teams. 

Between the emergence of several young arms in the rotation and the bullpen exploits of Brandon Hughes and a few others (maybe this is where Adbert Alzolay fits long term), there’s reason to believe the Cubs could fill out a solid bullpen with what is on hand and supplement it with cheap signings. The concentration on high-profile, outside-organization help should be on starters. 

Some free-agent pitchers: Jacob deGrom (if he opts out), Carlos Rodón, Chris Bassitt, Mike Clevinger, Nathan Eovaldi, Sean Manaea, Noah Syndergaard, Taijuan Walker (assuming he declines his $6M player option). Japanese star Kodai Senga is also expected to be in play

Do they bring Rodón back to Chicago? Would that be enough or do they need to add two starters? They could obviously explore the trade market, too. Isn’t it about time the Guardians start listening on Shane Bieber (he’s a free agent after 2024), for example? 

Some of what they do here depends on how everything goes on the position-player side. For example, it’s hard to see them being able to trade for both Devers and Bieber, but if they sign someone like Correa, they could absolutely trade for Bieber. Or they could sign Rodón and trade for Devers. Or maybe it’s a different path altogether, such as signing a shortstop and an ace before looking to trade elsewhere. 

The point is, the Cubs have plenty of money to spend and also have prospect currency to add salary via trades. They’ll be a major player in the offseason. 

After a quick break from relevance, they should be ready to rejoin the party.  

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