I chose the photo at the top of this post because I’d rather remember the 2023 version of the Chicago Cubs that way — celebrating a thrilling walkoff win — than by the September collapse that denied the team a postseason berth that they seemed to have nearly locked up at the middle of the month.
Disappointing? Absolutely. But also, a potential bridge to a better future.
First, a reminder of where I said this team would finish in the BCB staff preseason roundtable:
85 wins, contend for a wild card but not get it
Welp. That turned out to be just about right, less a couple of wins. Several of my colleagues had them finishing under .500.
Just to be completely transparent, here’s the rest of the sentence from my prediction:
and finish second a game or two ahead of the Brewers.
Welp, again. The Cubs did finish second in the N.L. Central, their best finish in a 162-game season since 2018, but... not ahead of the Brewers, who won the division. Who among you had the Cardinals losing 91 games this year? If I had told you in March that the Cubs would finish 12 games ahead of the Cardinals, you’d have been lining up for postseason tickets. But the Cardinals had an even more spectacular collapse than the Cubs, dropping from 93 wins to 71, losing 90+ for the first time since 1978 and finishing in last place for the first time since 1919. That team has a much longer road back to contention than the Cubs do.
Lots and lots of good things happened for the 2023 Cubs. Just a few of them, in no particular order:
- The emergence of Justin Steele as a true ace, who should get some downballot Cy Young votes, and who briefly looked like the potential winner of the award
- The solid year posted by Nico Hoerner, especially defensively. His 5.0 bWAR led the team. He would appear to be the likely Gold Glove winner at second base
- The great value the Cubs got from Dansby Swanson, clearly the best of any of the “Big Four” free agent shortstops from last offseason. Swanson, the Gold Glove winner at shortstop last year, is the probable winner again.
- Cody Bellinger’s comeback season. He’s the likely N.L. Comeback Player of the Year and will cash in on that this offseason — hopefully with the Cubs. More on this later.
- Seiya Suzuki, at last, showing the talent that had the Cubs investing five years in him before the 2022 season. He carried the ballclub offensively for the entire month of September, and don’t be surprised if he is the N.L. Player of the Month.
- Adbert Alzolay’s emergence as a lockdown closer. If only they’d done it to start the season, as I proposed here last December.
- Yan Gomes’ steady work behind the plate. The Cubs have a $6 million team option on him for 2024 and they should absolutely exercise it.
- Mike Tauchman’s reliable play in the outfield when Bellinger went down with an injury. Despite fading late in the year, Tauchman still posted 2.3 bWAR and made perhaps the play of the year [VIDEO].
- Speaking of “plays of the year,” how about this nomination? [VIDEO]
- Kyle Hendricks returned from shoulder trouble to put together a solid season, nearly no-hitting the Giants in June. The Professor is no longer the guy who led the league in ERA in 2016, but he’s pitching at about the level he was in 2018-19 and the Cubs absolutely, positively should exercise his option for 2024:
Tom Ricketts on Kyle Hendricks:— Cubs Zone (@CubsZone) October 1, 2023
“I know we have a team option on him and I’ll leave that up to Jed, but I don’t see why we wouldn’t bring him back next year.” pic.twitter.com/LPaAMXUwFW
There were some things that didn’t go right. Jameson Taillon was awful in the first half, but turned it around after the All-Star break, hopefully a good sign for 2024. Marcus Stroman was dominant enough in the first half to get an All-Star nod, but injuries ruined the rest of his season.
The Cubs also had multiple injuries to relievers that dwindled David Ross’ “circle of trust” to a tiny little pinpoint of light that you could barely see. There were jaw-dropping losses in Arizona and Atlanta.
But let’s remember the 2023 Cubs this way.
On June 8, the Angels completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs in Anaheim. (Talk about a team that needs help, they finished 73-89, their eighth straight losing season. If only they had the two best players in baseball over the last few years... oh, wait. They did.)
The Cubs were 26-36, 10 games under .500 after that sweep. They were 57-43 after that, a .570 winning percentage that would produce 92 wins over a full season. They became just the second team in Cubs history to get to 10 games under .500 and finish with a winning record. The other time was 1968, when a 35-45 Cubs start resulted in a finish of 84-78.
Jed Hoyer & Co. have work to do over the winter. Besides retaining Gomes and Hendricks on their team options, re-signing Bellinger needs to be a priority. “Whatever it takes” is my mantra for this, it’s clear that Bellinger was the Cubs’ best player this year. He’d probably have eclipsed Hoerner in bWAR if he’d played a full season, compiling 4.4 bWAR in 130 games.
To the thought of keeping Bellinger, I post this:
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts having a conversation with Cody Bellinger in the clubhouse.— Bruce Levine (@MLBBruceLevine) October 1, 2023
You can be certain this wasn’t just pleasantries — Tom Ricketts wouldn’t have traveled to Milwaukee just for that. Ricketts generally leaves baseball decisions to Hoyer, and wisely so, but I’m certain he made it clear where he stands.
To wrap things up here: Yes, it was disappointing to view another September collapse from the Cubs. Unlike the one in 2019, though, which in hindsight was basically the dying embers of the 2016 fire, this one laid some groundwork for the future. So does that make this a good year? In terms of individual players and accomplishments, sure, in many ways. But it fell short of the ultimate goal, which is the postseason. Next year, though, looks bright.
I can’t wait. Tomorrow, my Cubs final season grades.