The 2022 season for the Chicago Cubs felt like the first couple weeks of living in a new apartment after a breakup.
“Wow, I’m way worse at cooking than I thought.”
“I forgot to let the dog out again?”
“I should call her.”
The departures of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez at the 2021 Trade Deadline after manager Joe Maddon and President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein left in the two years prior marked the closure of the brightest era of any living Cubs fans’ days. Jed Hoyer just finished Year Two as President of Baseball Operations, and General Manager Carter Hawkins finished his maiden year after the team operated without a GM in ’21. Still, the Cubs failed to reach the 75-win threshold for the second consecutive season, and the tea leaves, for now, are reading a rebuild more than they are the start of a contending window.
However, Hoyer has made it abundantly clear that the Cubs would like to spend, and he believes the team is closer to competing again than what may meet the naked eye. Big-time purchases of starter Marcus Stroman and outfielder Seiya Suzuki in free agency may have been the first turn of the tide, but both struggled to stay on the field; Stroman failed to reach 140 innings for the Cubs this season, while Suzuki appeared in just 111 games.
With enormous promise in the minor leagues, Hoyer may be in a position to pounce. Here’s what the Cubs can do to put themselves in the best position to trudge towards the start of that contending window in 2023.
Sign a Star to Retire in Cubbie Blue
The Cubs should be serious players in the superstar free agent pool this winter. The names that jump out all happen to be shortstops, with the likes of Trea Turner and Dansby Swanson hitting the open market and both Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts seeming destined to decline their player options.
While Correa may have the biggest price tag of the bunch (it’ll be close with Turner), I believe it’s in the Cubs’ best interest to pursue others a bit more aggressively.
Turner is an exceptional fit on all 30 teams in Major League Baseball, but his dynamic abilities would gel with the Cubs beautifully. Despite playing the entire 2022 season at shortstop for the Dodgers, Turner has experience at both second base and in center field at the Major League level. We saw the Cubs use rookie standout Cristopher Morel in the electrifying Swiss Army knife role; Turner is a massive upgrade in an identical situation.
However, I believe that Xander Bogaerts is the perfect fit for the Chicago Cubs. The Red Sox’ anchor over the last nine years, the four-time All-Star and Silver Slugger recipient owns a career slash line of .292/.356/.458 while averaging nearly 40 doubles and 20 home runs per season. Moreover, he’s as durable as they come; since his age-21 season in 2014, Bogaerts has played in fewer than 144 games just once (not including the 2020 season, in which he played in 56 of the Red Sox’ 60 games).
Bogaerts is a massively improved defender at short after criticism of his defensive prowess gradually piled up, culminating in being named a finalist for the AL Gold Glove award at shortstop. The 2022 season marked career-bests for Bogaerts in Defensive Runs Saved (4), Ultimate Zone Rating (4.9), and Outs Above Average (5) at short.
Bogaerts has been exclusively a shortstop since 2014, but got early Major League reps at third base in Boston with Stephen Drew holding down short for the 2013 World Series champions. The Cubs’ situation slots Bogaerts at the hot corner impeccably, with Patrick Wisdom being one of the worst defensive third baseman in baseball, and Nico Hoerner being one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.
Veteran Starting Pitching is a Must
Hoyer and Hawkins, on the heels of the Epstein Era in Chicago, have done an excellent job of reloading the Cubs system in the pitching department. Each of the Cubs’ last two first round picks have been college arms, taking Oklahoma right-hander Cade Horton seventh overall this past summer and Kansas State southpaw Jordan Wicks falling to them at No. 21 in 2021.
However, even with Horton and Wicks added to a stable that includes the likes of Ben Brown, DJ Herz, Caleb Kilian, Ryan Jensen, and Kohl Franklin, the quality of top-end rotational talent won’t be enough to compete just yet.
Hence, taking a peak at the “time-buyers” available in the pitching market. The Cubs won’t be players in the Carlos Rodon sweepstakes, but shorter-term purchases (that line up with the final two years of Marcus Stroman’s deal) are feasible and probable. Some names that may jump out that will be in the free agent pool are 33-year-old right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, former Cub Jose Quintana, and 2022 Dodger expectation-exceeders Andrew Heaney and Tyler Anderson.
The Cubs have quickly restocked the system to be one of the most formidable in baseball. Massive breakout campaigns from former Mets first-rounder Pete Crow-Armstrong and former Giants farmhand Alexander Canario lead the pack in the position player pool, while Wicks, Herz, Brown, and flamethrower Daniel Palencia all shined on the hill this Minor League season. With even more top prospects Kevin Alcantara, Owen Caissie, James Triantos, and Cristian Hernandez continuing to ascend, the relatively distant future is bright.
But, Don’t be Too Patient
This may seem bleak, but it feels like no matter how much the Cubs may spend this winter, they’ll still be on the outside looking in of the “true contender” conversation. 2023, while it may not meet the unrealistic expectations of eternal optimists, presents a unique opportunity: a chance for MLB-ready prospects to play the majority of a Major League season on a team that won’t be one of the worst in baseball.
Offensively, breakout star and top-100 prospect Matt Mervis should be getting every day reps at first base. Off of back surgery, outfielder Brennen Davis shouldn’t be in Triple-A for more than half of the season. 2022 rookies in Cristopher Morel and Nelson Velasquez should continue to see the field consitently. Unfortunately, Canario, fresh off of a 37 home run campaign, would’ve gotten his first taste of MLB action if not for a brutal injury in the Dominican Winter League at the end of October.
On the mound, 2022 rookie right-handers Caleb Kilian and Hayden Wesneski, both acquired via trade, have the opportunity to make consistent starts. While Kilian’s debut season was a mixed bag at the big league level, Wesneski broke out in a big way after the deadline deal that brought him to the North Side in a swap for side-armer Scott Effross.
Veteran presence in Kyle Hendricks and Marcus Stroman can mix with youthful exuberance in the starting rotation. Current anchors in Nico Hoerner, Ian Happ, and Seiya Suzuki can continue to mesh with exciting young talents in Morel, Canario, and Mervis. The Cubs could truly be a mix of both presence and promise, which would be much more fulfilling of a watch than a team trying to contend and stumbling through 162 games.