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Reflections on the cusp of the Cubs’ 2023 season

Things are going to be better. Count on it.

Photo by @WillByington /

I’m thinking about a baseball team.

It had been a while since this team had won a World Series, and though they had made a few postseason appearances since, they’d fallen short of repeating as winners of that championship.

They had a number of homegrown stars who eventually did help them win that elusive World Series title, but over time, the team grew stale and many of those stars stopped producing and were traded away or departed as free agents.

In the offseason, they signed a starting pitcher who had been decent enough, but not an ace, and an outfielder who had question marks all over him.

Most projection systems had them coming in at around 75-77 wins.

And then ... oh, wait, you thought I was talking about this year’s Cubs. No, the team I’m talking about here is the 2021 San Francisco Giants. As you know, those Giants won 107 games before being rudely dispatched in a division series by the 106-win Dodgers.

Now, the 2023 Cubs are not going to win 107 games. That would be tied for the second-most in franchise history (1907).

But I sincerely and strongly believe that they are going to outperform the projection systems and have their first winning season since 2020 (and first in a full season since 2019) and contend for a postseason spot.

Why do I think this?

Because projection systems can only go on past performance. Take Cody Bellinger, for example. One projection has him batting .223/.315/.405 with 21 home runs, 49 RBI and 70 runs scored. Obviously, that’s not a $17.5 million player and yes, if Bellinger does that the Cubs are not going to do well.

But projection systems can only go on his most recent years, and Bellinger was just bad from 2020-22. In part, that was due to a couple of serious injuries, from which he is now back to 100 percent. I’m certainly not expecting him to replicate his 2019 MVP season — though, of course, it’d be real nice if he did. I don’t see any reason he couldn’t put up an OPS of .850 with 30 home runs, though, and combined with being a Gold Glove center fielder that’s a vast improvement over what the Cubs put out there in 2022 (largely Christopher Morel, Rafael Ortega and Jason Heyward and I don’t think I need to remind you that was pretty bad).

Defense has been what Jed Hoyer and his staff have focused on. They already had a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop in Nico Hoerner and moved him to second base to make room for another Gold Glover in Dansby Swanson. Another previous Gold Glove winner, Tucker Barnhart, was signed to catch. This will make the Cubs’ up-the-middle defense one of the best in baseball. The 2016 World Series champion Cubs were known, in part, for their great defense. Just two Gold Glove winners (Heyward and Anthony Rizzo), though Javier Báez probably should have won one (MLB added a “multi-position” Gold Glove largely because Báez spent a couple of years moving around the infield). This article, which I have linked to previously, says the 2016 Cubs were one of the best defensive teams in the history of baseball, and that defense is one of the big reasons the Cubs won it all that year. Defense matters and sometimes projection systems don’t account for its value. I am sure you noticed, when the World Series core was all traded away, how bad the defense got almost immediately. It will be close to that level this year.

This especially matters when you have soft-tossing, ground-ball pitchers in your rotation such as Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly and, when he returns, Kyle Hendricks. And yes, I expect Hendricks to return and while he’ll likely never again be the dominant guy he was in 2016, I don’t see any reason he can’t be what he was in 2018 and 2019 — a solid, 3 WAR pitcher who eats up innings.

That’s what the Cubs rotation is. There might not be an ace, but top to bottom there are No. 2 and No. 3 guys, and Hayden Wesneski might be near the top in quality right now. He’s a Rookie of the Year candidate, and that trade is looking mighty good right now. Jameson Taillon is a former first-round pick (second overall in 2010, right behind some guy named Bryce Harper) who appears poised to have a breakout season.

If the Cubs have a weakness it’s the bullpen. There are untested arms and guys who haven’t had much MLB success there. Michael Fulmer might be closer-by-default, though Brad Boxberger has enough MLB experience to take over that role if needed — and maybe in the end that role goes to Adbert Alzolay.

Will the Cubs miss Willson Contreras’ offense? Sure, though some of that should be made up for by Swanson and Bellinger, and defense behind the plate will be improved. Barnhart and Yan Gomes should split time just about equally, and Gomes had some injuries he was working through last year.

So was Patrick Wisdom, per reports, and that might have been the reason his defense suffered after being pretty good in 2021. He’s 100 percent healthy now with a revamped approach at the plate that had him hit .333/.458/.615 (13-for-39) with three home runs and 15 strikeouts this spring. The K’s are still high — but if he can hit .250 with 30+ home runs, that’s still a quality MLB player.

Does this team have flaws? Sure. Eric Hosmer, in my view, is no longer a MLB player. The team should have just taken a chance on Matt Mervis, and if Hosmer hits poorly early in the season, that still could happen. Hosmer once won three Gold Gloves, but I did not see any evidence of that sort of defense from him in spring games.

The pessimism I’ve seen — largely, it would seem, because of the projections — doesn’t seem warranted. The Cubs won 74 games in 2022. They have made significant improvements and are projected to win ... one to three more games? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

Is this a team that can overtake the Cardinals for the N.L. Central title? Probably not, but again, you never know what might happen once the season begins. I don’t think the distance between the Cubs and Cardinals is as great as it was a year ago, and the Brewers treaded water in the offseason. The Cubs should be able to fight it out with the Brewers for second place, at the very least, and with a bit of luck and comeback years... who knows? Maybe a wild-card spot is possible. If the team is in a position to do that at the trade deadline, I am certain Hoyer will add to the ballclub.

Then there are the rule changes that we’ve already seen in Spring Training. The pitch timer is fantastic, it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do, knocking about 25 minutes off the average length of a game and preventing hitters from messing around with batting gloves and constantly stepping out, or pitchers stomping around the mound for what seems like forever. I look forward to attending 1:20 p.m. games at Wrigley Field that end before 4 p.m. Restricting shifts and larger bases should lead to more balls in play and more stolen bases, and that’s a good thing. Baseball will look and feel better this year, and that’s also in part because after two years affected by the pandemic and one by MLB’s lockout, we’re going to have the first “normal” season since 2019.

In any case, it all starts tomorrow. Things always happen in baseball seasons that no one expected before the season begins. Perhaps the Cubs will surprise all of us (in a good way) in 2023.

Play ball!


How many games will the Cubs win in 2023?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    100 or more
    (15 votes)
  • 0%
    (3 votes)
  • 5%
    (45 votes)
  • 35%
    (287 votes)
  • 40%
    (325 votes)
  • 13%
    (112 votes)
  • 1%
    (12 votes)
  • 0%
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Fewer than 60
    (5 votes)
806 votes total Vote Now