By: Andy Jachim
With opening day in the rearview, a new season of Cubs baseball is officially underway on the north side of Chicago. Despite just playing one game, there’s a lot to like about this 2023 group, however, there a still a fair amount of question marks that are lingering as well.
There is without a doubt that at least on paper, this group is expected to outperform the 2022 squad. Now that isn’t saying a whole lot, but the second half of last season was a rather positive one for the Cubs. Finishing the second half with an above .500 record, David Ross is looking to guide this team in its best possible direction since the fire sale of 2021 went down.
New kids on the block
It’s impossible to talk about the Cub’s offseason without mentioning our brand-new franchise shortstop. Dansby Swanson is expected to bring a lot of buzz to the friendly confines for a long time, which makes all of the sense in the world. Inking a seven-year, $177 million deal, a lot of expectations have been set for the former #1 overall pick out of Vanderbilt. Swanson is coming off a 2022 campaign that most are considering to be a career year for him, as he hit .277 to go with 25 home runs and 96 RBIs. He also posted a .766 OPS, which was 70 points above the league average a year ago. Plus, his incredible defense only adds more to the table. It’s safe to say that Cubs fans everywhere are pumped to see the middle infield combination of Swanson and Nico Hoerner for the next few seasons.
Jameson Taillon was one of the other big fish free agents Jed Hoyer was able to land in the offseason. The former Yankee is set to pitch in Cubbie blue for the near future, as his deal is for four years, netting him nearly $70 million. Taillon’s WHIP numbers went down in 2022 compared to his 2021 season despite throwing more innings. While his ERA isn’t pretty, there are many other things this guy does well. With the money we are paying him, I’m expecting him to be a great compliment piece to Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele in the years to come.
The former NL MVP Cody Bellinger signing a one-year deal back in December was a surprise to some. The 27-year-old is a shell of his former self, as the Dodgers booted him out the door and got nothing in return for him. Belli hit .165 back in 2021, and .210 last season, and while I know batting average doesn’t mean everything to certain hitters, the fact that he hit .305 in his MVP year back in 2019 shows that power isn’t everything in his approach. Coming to Wrigleyville offers Bellinger the opportunity to prove himself and be guaranteed to play practically every day. I haven’t shut the door on his career by any means, and this signing is truly a win-win for the Cubs, as long as doesn’t hit as he has in the previous two seasons. If the Cubs are in a wildcard-like position, he can stick around and try to get us over that hump. If we are in a mini-sell mode (again) by August, he has the potential to bring us back a decent prospect haul. This of course is dependent on if he can be a quality hitter again.
Trey Mancini has been a fun story across baseball for the last year of years. Battling back from cancer and helping Baltimore get back to relevance before being dealt to the eventual world champion Houston Astros made for a great year for the 31-year-old in 2022. He joins the Cubs on a two-year deal looking for consistent playing time once again with a chance to compete. He brings some thump to this lineup, with the ability to serve as a right-handed hitting first base option. He’ll see a lot of time in the DH spot which is fine by me. As long as his bat is in the middle of our order, I don’t care where he plays.
Bringing in another left-handed hitting option at first base was something I did not expect this past winter. I was sure that prospect Matt Mervis would take over the reins of the position entirely, except for having a right-handed hitting counterpart. Signing Eric Hosmer assured all Cubs fans that we would have to wait for the Mervis train to leave the station to Wrigleyville for a little longer. Now 33 years old, Hosmer’s career post-Kansas City has been less than ideal. His offensive struggles got him cut loose from San Diego last season, and they are still paying him a chunk of that deal in 2023. After spending just 14 games in Boston to wrap up 2022, Hos finds himself on the north side this season. I have little expectations for him if I am being completely honest. He’s on a veteran minimum contract and his bat has essentially lost all life, so I would hate for him to continue to steal at-bats from Mervis deep into the season. My ultimate hope is that Hosmer is off the team by the 4th of July, and I feel like that’s slightly generous on my end.
The man closing out ball games to begin the season will be none other than Michael Fulmer. The long-time Detriot Tiger ended up failing as a starter, but his conversion to the bullpen has been a rather successful one. He posted 14 saves back in 2021 with the Tigers, and while he didn’t do much closing a year ago, his consistency as a reliever earned him a trade to an inner-division rival, the Minnesota Twins. He added depth to the back end of the Twins’ pen for their playoff run that never fulfilled to anything. Just like a couple of the guys already mentioned, Fulmer gets an opportunity to prove himself in Chicago. If all goes well and the Cubs aren’t competing, he could get the same treatment David Robertson did at last year’s deadline.
What’s a reasonable expectation for this group to finish in September?
I’ve mentioned a couple of times already with some of the one-year contract guys that they coil stick around post-deadline IF the Cubs are in the Wild Card race. I like to try and think on the positive side of things in that the improvements made to this squad could give us a fighting chance to play in a best-of-three series in October. However, the fact of that matter is that most likely will not be the case. From a record standpoint, I believe this team will ultimately represent mediocrity in the MLB this season. Anywhere between 77 to 83 wins sounds about right to me and we shouldn’t finish any lower than third in the NL Central.
The rotation is pretty rock solid in my opinion, but I still feel like we are legit top dog away from being serious in competing. The bullpen is being pieced together for yet another season and while I love arms like Keegan Thompson, Javier Assad, Adbert Alzolay, and Brandon Hughes, there just isn’t enough there to move the needle.
Losing Willson Contreras behind the plate is tough for all Cubs fans as he will be missed in Chicago very much. Yan Gomes will take a load of the work behind the dish, with veteran Tucker Barnhart being signed as the second part of Chicago’s tandom this year. There won’t be much offense between these two, but the pitching staff will reap the benefits on them being on the roster. Both are known for their abilities to work well with pitching staffs in the past, and the hope it that will translate to 2023.
The infield is pretty squared away. Dasnby and Nico up the middle and the platoon of Mancini/Hosmer over at first (with hopes that Mervis will be here soon) lead the way. Third base is much more open for this year. Patrick Wisdom was given the opening day start at the hot corner, which was a surprise to nobody. He is accompanied by the powerful left-handed hitting corner infielder who came over in the offseason by way of free agency, Edwin Rios. The former Dodger will serve as depth for the Cubs with the ability to move around on the infield. Despite starting the season in AAA, Christopher Morel is still lurking in the shadows as well.
Lastly, the outfield might be the most set position group on this roster. 2022 all-star Ian Happ is still roaming left field, newly signed Cody Bellinger is the everyday center fielder, and Sieya Suzuki is at the other corner in right. The only issue at the moment is that Suzuki has found himself on the IL to start 2023 with a groin injury. In the mean team, right field will be taken care of by a whole cast of characters. Long-time minor leaguer Miles Mastrobuoni got the nod to take Suzuki’s place for opening day, but he won’t be the only guy filling that role. Wisdom, Mancini, and even Rios have experience in the corner outfield spots, so it will be a true hodgepodge until Seiya’s return.
All in all, it feels great to have baseball back. With it being my primary sport of focus and the game I grew up on, life is much better when it’s being played than when it’s not. While expectations for the Cubs have risen, the competing window is still a year or two away and that’s perfectly fine. Most importantly, it’s just a relief knowing that a competitive ball club will be on display when I make my trips to Wrigley this summer.