During the playoffs I took a look at how Cubs position player value compared to the rest of the league in 2022 to get an idea of how close they were to competing in 2023. The results, well, weren’t great. From that earlier piece:
The Cubs gain 2.3 fWAR from players who were negative in 2022, however they lose 3.3 fWAR from Willson Contreras, which puts them at 14.9 total fWAR returning. Now, obviously some players might take a step forward, or a step back, but as currently constructed the Cubs would need to add approximately 20 fWAR in free agent contracts just from position players to approach the level of fWAR the top teams in the playoffs had in 2022. They’d need to add at least ten fWAR to get into the top ten teams and put themselves in playoff contention.
But position players are only part of the equation, so as promised in that earlier article, today I’ll look at the value the Cubs got from their pitchers during 2022 with the same basic premise: Identifying how much more value the Cubs need to get from their starting rotation and bullpen to be competitive in 2023. Brace yourself, it’s not going to be pretty.
Team by Team Comparison
The Cubs got 8.7 fWAR from their pitchers in 2022, which was the 26th lowest fWAR for any pitching staff in baseball. By comparison, the World Series Champion Astros got 27 total fWAR from their pitchers last season. The NL-leading Dodgers got 24.6 fWAR from their pitching staff. To join the top of the league in terms of pitching value the Cubs would need to add between 15.9 and 18.3 fWAR in terms of pitching value this offseason.
Team pitching fWAR 2022
Let’s set our sights a little lower than the Dodgers and the Astros for now, because as the Phillies demonstrated this year, you don’t need to dominate with your rotation all season, you just need to be good enough to get to the postseason and hope you get hot at the right time. If we look at the teams that led the NL Central, the fWAR gap is a still daunting but more manageable 6.2 fWAR to catch the division leading Brewers and 4.7 fWAR to catch the Cardinals. For reference, Carlos Rodón put up 6.2 fWAR in 178 innings with the Giants in 2022 as the second most valuable pitcher in MLB and Corbin Burnes put up 4.6 fWAR across 202 innings with the Brewers, making him the ninth most valuable pitcher in baseball.
Theoretically, Rodón is available, but there are lots of ways to add that fWAR. Let’s take a closer look at the Cubs current roster to see what it currently looks like in terms of players.
Cubs pitcher value 2022
The Cubs top pitcher in 2022 by fWAR was Justin Steele, who took a big step forward in 2022 with a career-high 119 innings pitched. He put up a 3.18 ERA over those innings striking out 9.53 batters per nine innings and a less impressive 3.78 walks per nine innings. For that performance he earned 2.6 fWAR. As I mentioned above, one way to think of the NL Central fWAR gap is that the Cubs basically need to add one ace starter who can put up approximately twice the value Steele did in 2022. Alternatively, they could Cubs this up and keep tinkering around the margins hoping they can cobble together that value from back of the rotation guys who might be better in a long relief role. Let’s take a look at every Cubs pitcher (minus position players) in 2022. I apologize in advance for the size of this table, the Cubs used a lot of pitchers last season:
Cubs pitcher fWAR 2022
|Locke St. John||0||0||0||1||0||2.0||18.00||0.00||9.00||.333||0.0%||0.0%||50.0%||13.5||12.11||2.07||-0.1|
Now, just as with the position player table, this is a bit misleading. There are guys putting up solid numbers there (looking at you Scott Effross) who were traded for other guys who put up solid numbers (hello, Hayden Wesneski). So below you can see the Cubs returning pitchers and their value. I’ve broken this into starters and relievers to make it a bit easier to compare where the needs truly are for next season, obviously some guys appear on both lists since they had dual roles in 2022.
Returning starting pitchers
The biggest losses for the Cubs from the rotation are Drew Smyly and Wade Miley. Smyly was worth 1.3 fWAR for the Cubs in 106⅓ innings pitched. That made him the fourth most valuable pitcher in the team behind Steele, Marcus Stroman and Adrian Sampson. Miley was worth 0.5 fWAR in 37 innings pitched, which made him the eighth most valuable pitcher on the team. Let’s look at the updated list:
Returning Starting Pitcher fWAR
Now, there are some reasons to be optimistic here. Wesneski was outstanding in limited work and after throwing 143⅓ innings between Triple-A and MLB for the Cubs and the Yankees last year, he should project to a full season’s workload nicely. Similarly, Stroman dealt with some injury issues last season and it wouldn’t be surprising if he put up a 3.0 or 3.5 fWAR (in line with his career norms) if he stays healthy in 2023.
But even with that cautious optimism it’s hard to escape the fact that the Cubs are returning 6.2 fWAR to their rotation in 2023. For comparisons sake, the starters for the division-leading Brewers and Cardinals put up 12.3 and 10.5 fWAR respectively last season.
Returning relief pitchers
While many of us are justifiably optimistic about the work the pitch lab has done, I think it’s important to be realistic about exactly where the improvements have been seen. Specifically, the Cubs have been very good at developing mid-level relievers and back of the rotation arms. They have been substantially less successful developing top tier starting or bullpen talent, which goes a long ways to explaining why the 0.9 fWAR the Cubs’ relievers tallied in 2022 was third from last in MLB. Fortunately, the Cardinals and Brewers weren’t that much better here, getting 2.9 and 2.5 fWAR from their pens respectively.
Let’s look at who is likely returning as a possible bullpen arm for the Cubs in 2023:
Returning Bullpen fWAR 2022
When I sum the fWAR column on that table the Cubs got -0.1 fWAR from their returning bullpen pitchers for 2022. Yes, you read that correctly. Even with the standard stipulations that there are lots of negative fWAR players in the bullpen, and relievers generally being worth fewer wins above replacement because they have lighter work loads...that is not encouraging. Brandon Hughes threw 57⅔ innings, including a lot of high leverage work. He struck out 10.61 batters per nine innings. He was worth -0.3 fWAR.
Now, again, reliever fWAR is clearly a small sample size nightmare, but it is worth noting that the most valuable relievers for the Cubs last year were almost all one-year contracts who were traded at the deadline. Effross put up a bullpen leading 1.2 fWAR, David Robertson put up 0.5 fWAR before he was traded to the Phillies, Chris Martin put up 0.4 fWAR before he was traded to the Dodgers, Mychal Givens put up 0.2 fWAR before he was traded to the Mets. You get the idea.
The Cubs will likely need their homegrown talent to take a few giants leap forward and supplement the bullpen in free agency with some one-year deals who hopefully are not traded because the team is in contention this year, but a lot will need to go right for the Cubs to catch up the the NL Central, let alone the rest of the league.
I’m not trying to rain on everyone’s hot stove parade here, but it’s worth having your eyes wide open at the start of this offseason. While there are many reports that the Cubs will look to be active in free agency this offseason, it’s reasonable for fans to wonder if they will be able to add all of the pieces they need to for competitive baseball to return to the corner of Clark and Addison next season. By my tally they need to land one of the big four shortstops, a catcher (who will not be as good offensively as Willson Contreras), a 1B/DH type to back up Mervis, have Mervis be everything they think he is, and add a centerfielder. They also need at least one starting pitcher (preferably an ace type, not a contact type) and a slew of small bullpen deals similar to the ones they made in 2021 and 2022. With the payroll currently sitting at 13th in MLB at $167 million according to Spotrac, they have the financial flexibility to get all of this done. However, that is still a tall order for one offseason just to get back to the baseline value teams who were competing for playoff spots in 2022.