The second decade of the 21st century did not lack for intrigue for Chicago Cubs fans. The club entered the decade with new ownership for the first time in generations, barreling headfirst into a tank in search of some top draft picks and cash savings to be plunged into payroll when the team was ready to win. We all know what happened next: three consecutive 90+ loss seasons from 2011-13, crummy ball through deadline day in 2014 followed by .500 ball through the end of the season, and then the Cubs flipped the switch, playing winning baseball through the rest of the decade. The 2021 club saw the end of an era with franchise icons shipped out of town.
And then 2022. We all wondered what 2022 would be when July 2021 saw Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant move to contenders. As it turns out, 2022 was, well, boring. It’s not to say that there was no intrigue whatsoever. To be fair, many of us eagerly awaited seeing what Nick Madrigal could do with a full season at the keystone, Jackson (aka Clint) Frazier with a full year in the outfield, and Seiya Suzuki with his first crack at MLB. But the lacking starting rotation combined with a severe lack of oomph in the lineup capped the ceiling for the 2022 squad well below contention. As a result, the most excitement came via Suzuki’s encouraging debut, Christopher Morel’s raucous summer, return visits from former stars, and another deadline selloff.
Thankfully, 2023 does not feature the same outlook.
The 2023 Cubs have an incredible number of possible outcomes. The starting rotation that now features Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillon, Justin Steele, Drew Smyly, Kyle Hendricks, Hayden Wesneski, Adrian Sampson, and Caleb Kilian figures to run out a genuine Major Leaguer for every start. Will the rotation be good? Who knows? But that level of depth figures to give the Cubs a competitive chance in every game, something that wasn’t true in 2022.
Instead of hoping for duplicate miracle seasons from Rafael Ortega and Frank Schwindel like the Cubs did in 2022 — I suppose that was some version of interesting — the centerfield and first base spots will be filled by some combination of languishing former MVP and ultimate rebound candidate Cody Bellinger, a pair of cheap sluggers with 3+ WAR seasons in their backgrounds in Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer, and emerging masher Matt Mervis. Will they actually produce more than the 0.0 WAR that Ortega and Schwindel accumulated in 2022? Well, we don’t know for sure ... but yes.
To me, it’s exponentially more interesting to see if former stars can regain their form or keep their careers afloat than to see if a couple of career minor leaguers can repeat miracle months over the course of a full season.
It’s also going to be much more interesting to see if Nelson Velázquez can hit Major League pitching than it would have been to see if the next couple hundred plate appearances were the ones that helped Jason Heyward regain the form he featured during his first six years as a big leaguer.
The Cubs farm system lacked the upper-minors talent to ensure that the 2023 club possessed this level of depth. Kudos to the Ricketts family for using their robust cash resources to elevate the floor.
Perhaps most importantly, by using their cash to acquire talent in lieu of making trades, the Cubs surrendered only their second round pick for signing Dansby Swanson, otherwise keeping their wildly improving farm system intact. Further, I wrote this piece last week, on the day when the Cubs dropped $5.2 million to sign a trio of top-20 international amateur free agents: Derniche Valdez, Ludwig Espinoza and Angel Cepeda. Feeding the farm and feeding the Major League roster without gutting the farm is how clubs maximize talent accumulation, albeit at a higher financial cost.
By keeping the farm intact, the front office now has the ability to supplement the 2023 club with in-season trades if the roster justifies supplementing. If, on the other hand, things go south early, the Cubs can ship out players unlikely to contribute in 2024 and beyond to further feed the farm.
In the end, most fans care about whether the big club holds their interest all year. And to that end, we ask the big question: are the 2023 Chicago Cubs going to be good? I have no idea. I do know that both the Major League club and the farm system look far more promising in 2023 than they did in 2022. Most importantly, I’m interested to see what happens in 2023, and there’s a lot to be said for that.