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BCB roundtable: 2023 Cubs season preview

A discussion of the season to come from the BCB staff.

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BCB’s front-page writers have done several of these roundtable discussions previewing Cubs seasons and postseasons, so here we are again to kick off the 2023 season. Josh, Sara, Thomas, Rob, Duane and I had a lively online conversation Tuesday afternoon. The online chat has been lightly edited for clarity. Ashley was unable to join us for this discussion.

Al Yellon: The first question I want to ask everyone is — why do you think some are so down on this year’s Cubs because of the 75-win projections some are giving them? Personally I think they are better than that — a worse Cubs team won 74 last year.

Sara Sanchez: Because that’s the talent level of the team.

Duane Pesice: 1) Because they don’t want to believe. 2) Too many unknowns.

Josh Timmers: You’re referring to the projection systems, correct? I think most of the writers think they’ll be better than last year.

Al Yellon: Yes, the projection systems.

Duane Pesice: Because they are fatally flawed.

Al Yellon: You mean the projection systems, Duane?

Duane Pesice: Yes, no projection system can account for the stochastic streak. The random and surprising are what drives real life.

Al Yellon: The projection systems can only go on past performance. Who’s to say, for example, that Cody Bellinger won’t be better than he was last year?

Duane Pesice: I suspect he will. In fact I see him as the Comeback Player of the Year.

Al Yellon: So do I.

Sara Sanchez: At this point those are more recent data points for Bellinger than the years where he put up MVP numbers

Thomas Smith: I think I must have written a dozen times late last season that progress isn’t a given or linear. I think a lot went right down the stretch. Did the Cubs take a giant step forward in player development and coaching? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Duane Pesice: No, Thomas, but they have better players.

Sara Sanchez: Projection systems are based on a combination of three-year averages (give or take) with projections going forward and then take into account the changes (everyone has a harder schedule, for example) and runs thousands of iterations to see what the most likely records are. This team projects to be a 74-75 win team with their past talent level and the current schedule.

Al Yellon: Looking at Bellinger specifically, his last three years were filled with injuries.

Thomas Smith: I’m definitely excited about the changes the Cubs made. I just can’t look anyone in the eye and say they will definitely go over 75 wins. I’ve seen a few projections at 77.5 in Vegas. I would definitely bet the under.

Josh Timmers: Yeah, Sara may be on to something. Fewer games with the Pirates and Reds. But we really don’t know how good every team in the league is going to be at this point.

Al Yellon: At the same time, the Cubs have games replacing those with the A’s, Tigers and Royals.

Sara Sanchez: And the Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays.

Josh Timmers: I think there’s a wide variety of how this team could perform. They could win the division. They could finish last.

Al Yellon: They won’t finish last. The Reds are still awful.

Thomas Smith: I expect Bellinger to be above average to good. But the lineup was lousy last year. It may not be enough. I do love a team built on defense and pitching.

Duane Pesice: Thomas, I think what they need is health. They don’t YET have the quality depth. But, with a healthy Suzuki, 2 through 7 are capable of 25+ HR. I’m not saying they WILL hit them, but it’s not a rash projection.

Thomas Smith: Agreed on depth, Duane. You can see a plan coming together but it needs time.

Al Yellon: Dansby Swanson certainly replaces some of the offense lost when Willson Contreras was let go. Plus he provides Gold Glove defense. To me that’s the most important improvement, defense. I really do think the up the middle defense improvement is something you will notice. And that matters especially with the ground ball starters the Cubs have. I noticed the huge dropoff in defense when the 2021 selloff happened.

Duane Pesice: The pitchers know. Sanker gonna SANK.

Josh Timmers: I’m with you on the infield defense. I think that’s getting undervalued by some of the systems.

Duane Pesice Stroman in particular was quoted as noting the middle D was important.

Josh Timmers: This pitching staff is specifically built to take advantage of that strong defense up the middle as well.

Sara Sanchez: I’m excited about Taillon’s sweeper.

Josh Timmers: So am I, Sara.

Al Yellon: So am I. Taillon was a first-round draft pick, the talent is definitely there.

Duane Pesice: He’s looked great so far. The sweeper sets up the four-seam beautifully.

Al Yellon: And then there’s Kyle Hendricks, who I think can at least get himself back to 2018-19 level.

Josh Timmers: Yeah, that’s where you lose me, Al. I’m not as optimistic about Hendricks. But the Cubs will find a fifth starter — maybe they already have in Wesneski.

Al Yellon: The Cubs have five starters who can all give them a quality 5-6 innings every time out. They did not have that last year. And Wesneski is a Rookie of the Year candidate.

Sara Sanchez: I’m not concerned about Hendricks because Wesneski and Assad are both good for that spot. I am concerned about the pitching staff being very similar types of looks back to back to back.

Duane Pesice: I have bullpen concern though. It’s unsettled at present.

Josh Timmers: I have major bullpen concerns.

Duane Pesice: Yeah, that could be the undoing.

Al Yellon: Yes, I would agree with that, the bullpen is unsettled. But you know, I think Adbert Alzolay could be a key to the pen. If Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger fail, Alzolay could close.

Thomas Smith: The one thing I’ll say, every year the pen is a question. Every year the sum is greater than the parts.

Josh Timmers: Javier Assad’s performance out of the pen in the WBC makes me think he could be a real weapon this year.

Duane Pesice: True, and I love Keegan Thompson in the pen.

Josh Timmers: Yeah, but I’m concerned about Thompson’s velo in ST.

Al Yellon: The Cubs do have several guys who can give them multiple innings in relief. And if the starters can go deeper, that means less reliance on the pen.

Sara Sanchez: Eno Sarris said that Fulmer’s stuff plus numbers in the spring looked really good on an episode of Rates and Barrels this last week.

Al Yellon: He had a really rough outing on Monday, but that could have been a one-off. Otherwise he looked good to me when I saw him throw.

Josh Timmers: The good news is that the defense should clean up at least some of the pitchers’ mistakes.

Thomas Smith: Right and that defense will squeeze some value for the pen too.

Duane Pesice: The offense, though... If Nico falters at all at leadoff, there’s trouble.

Al Yellon: Well, as I said, Dansby Swanson will give some offense. So will Seiya Suzuki when he returns

Josh Timmers: I’m pretty happy with 1 through 4 in the lineup once Suzuki returns.

Al Yellon: I think Nico will be an excellent leadoff hitter. Just has to stay healthy.

Thomas Smith: I fear that there are going to be a lot of 12 baserunners two runs games. Not a ton of power or speed.

Josh Timmers: And honestly, what’s Bellinger going to do? We don’t know. He could be great though.

Duane Pesice: Yeah, like I said, 2 (Swanson) through 7 (Wisdom/Hosmer) look good for power, production, if not BA.

Al Yellon: I think there’s sneaky power in all those guys... except maybe Hosmer. He looks done.

Duane Pesice: Bellinger at .250, 35 home runs, is retained. Hosmer’s bat has a hole in it.

Al Yellon: Trey Mancini is another guy who has hit for power in the past, was hurt some last year.

Duane Pesice: I like Mancini.

Rob Huff: I’m deeply concerned about Nico. He was great last year in a mostly-healthy year... but he spent the prior three years being repeatedly injured. He’s young enough to stay healthy, but if he goes down, the leadoff spot is.... ?

Josh Timmers: Mancini’s had health problems for the past few years. But he was very productive before that. Still, we can’t count on his health again this year. (Although I’m not expecting the cancer thing to recur on Mancini.)

Duane Pesice: That’s why you keep Madrigal around.

Thomas Smith: Right. A whole team full of guys with recent injury history.

Al Yellon: ... who appear to be healthy now.

Sara Sanchez: I am sorry, very few of these names (other than Seiya/Nico/Dansby/Happ) inspire me offensively at all

Rob Huff: One problem: Madrigal is not good. I will remain hopeful that he shows more this year than he did previously, but my goodness, he was unplayable for huge chunks of last year — have to hope that a healthy year moves the needle for him in a big way.

Josh Timmers: I’d be surprised if Madrigal plays a lot.

Al Yellon: I’m with you on Madrigal, Rob. I have seen NOTHING from him that tells me why the White Sox used the fourth overall pick on him. What do you guys think about Edwin Rios and Luis Torrens, who have both apparently made the Opening Day roster? Jed Hoyer says he wants strong defense, but those guys just don’t have that. They can hit, though

Thomas Smith: Rios is intriguing as a DH.

Al Yellon: Rios hits like Wisdom though — low BA, but power.

Duane Pesice: I like Torrens, who can play a lot of positions, but none especially well. Rios has that big power

Josh Timmers: I don’t know how long either of them will stick around. But it gives them some power in the meantime

Sara Sanchez: I think it’s bonkers that the Cubs are carrying three catchers. Torrens is not good and the idea that he’s here to give them an offensive option at catcher given that they failed to extend Willson Contreras is laughable. But, I am intrigued by Edwin Ríos’ power.

Duane Pesice: Torrens can and has played 3B, 2B, 1B, LF.

Al Yellon: Yeah, I doubt Torrens catches much. A DH or a PH mostly

Thomas Smith: It still feels a little like a B squad from spring training.

Josh Timmers: I think it’s an April thing with the three catchers

Duane Pesice: He and Rios are bench thunder.

Thomas Smith: Four proven guys with a bunch of guys trying to find potential.

Al Yellon: Okay, we’ve covered many of the team topics, hitting, pitching, defense. Who will lead the Cubs in home runs?

Duane Pesice: Happ.

Josh Timmers: Swanson.

Al Yellon: Bellinger.

Sara Sanchez: Seiya (just to be different).

Thomas Smith: I’ll go Bellinger too.

Josh Timmers: Oh wait, can I change my answer to Madrigal? (Kidding)

Sara Sanchez: Honestly, Wisdom has led the team for two years in a row

Thomas Smith: I considered Wisdom too.

Al Yellon: Sure, Wisdom has led the team two years in a row... but that’s largely because there was no one else.

Josh Timmers: The issue is whether there is anyone else this year though. The only sure power hitter the Cubs have added is Swanson.

Al Yellon: Which of the starters will have the best overall season?

Josh Timmers: Taillon.

Duane Pesice: Taillon. He has flashed no-no stuff all spring.

Al Yellon: Taillon.

Sara Sanchez: Wesneski.

Thomas Smith: I’ll send love to Stroman. He stays healthy and benefits from the D.

Al Yellon: Who will be All-Star(s) from the Cubs? I’ll say Taillon and Swanson

Thomas Smith: Bellinger and Swanson.

Sara Sanchez: Seiya.

Josh Timmers: Happ and Hoerner make the All-Star team.

Rob Huff: Dingers: Bellinger. Best SP: Stroman All-Stars: Stroman and Happ (contract years forever).

Duane Pesice: Also Taillon and Wesneski.

Al Yellon: I’m still thinking Wesneski is a strong Rookie of the Year candidate

Duane Pesice: Also agreed.

Josh Timmers: He could be. But there are so many good rookies this season. Going back a bit, it would be wild if Matt Mervis led the Cubs in homers.

Sara Sanchez: So you all believe the Cubs will have more than one representative at the All Star Game? I’m not sure.

Al Yellon: Yes, I do

Duane Pesice: I see four.

Thomas Smith: As for good rookies, Jordan Walker from the Cards.

Al Yellon: I saw Jordan Walker play in the Fall League. He is the real deal.

Sara Sanchez: Walker is very good.

Josh Timmers: Don’t forget Corbin Carroll is still a rookie.

Sara Sanchez: The Cubs had the Fall Stars Game MVP in Matt Mervis and he’s in Iowa for #reasons

Josh Timmers: Honestly Sara, I understand the Cubs reluctance to hand Mervis a starting job. He could still use some seasoning in the minors. But he’ll be up eventually. I hope.

Duane Pesice: The Cubs are going to be a popular dark horse this year.

Al Yellon Yes, absolutely.

Rob Huff: I wrote a piece about this earlier this winter: part of what makes this Cubs team so fun is that there is incredible variance here. The 2016 team was going to be good. They had legitimate redundancies at multiple spots (lots of starters on the bench). The 2022 team was bad and not fun because they had multiple reserves starting. 2023? Who the hell knows? Is Cody Bellinger an MVP candidate, a washout, or something else? Is Hoerner healthy? Is Dansby’s power explosion legit? Can a bullpen of all righties work in this new era where the LOOGY has been legislated out of the game? I love it! So many possible outcomes!

Duane Pesice: The 2022 team was fun after the trade deadline. Before then, it was vulture season.

Thomas Smith: Yep. I was going to say the same Duane. I had more fun than I have in years down the stretch.

Rob Huff: Could they win 73 games? yeah, I could see that. Hard to see them being worse than that given the amount of quality pitching. Could they win 93? Yeah, I have to squint a little, but yeah.

Duane Pesice: 83 looks best.

Al Yellon: So, let’s make our predictions. How many games will the Cubs win and where will they finish?

Duane Pesice 85, just/miss the playoffs, third place.

Thomas Smith: Distant third. 75 wins

Josh Timmers: 82 wins and second place. I’m predicting the Brewers to have a bad year.

Al Yellon: 85 wins, contend for a wild card but not get it, and finish second a game or two ahead of the Brewers.

Sara Sanchez: 75 and third. Well out of the wild card by the All-Star break. Bellinger, Happ and maybe Mancini are traded, possibly Stro too.

Rob Huff: 82. Third place.And they’ll stand pat at the deadline. That’ll be frustrating.

Al Yellon: If they’re even in marginal contention at the deadline they might add rather than stand pat.

Duane Pesice: Yeah. It’d be hard to see them doing more fire sales.

Sara Sanchez: Those aren’t fire sales, they are expiring contracts. The Cardinals and Brewers will be neck and neck for the division (again) this time led by Contreras brothers.

Al Yellon: The Brewers offense is just so bad though.

Josh Timmers: Agreed. The Brewers can’t hit.

Thomas Smith: Brewers always seem to figure it out. They’ll start rough, be left for dead, then be in contention with two weeks left in the season.

Josh Timmers: Rob may be on to something. The Cubs may be too close to contention to deal anyone at the deadline, but too far away to really add anyone. Not always the best place to be.

Rob Huff: Professional sports purgatory: it’s the WORST place to be.

Duane Pesice: I think Bellinger gets renewed.

Al Yellon: Bellinger won’t just get renewed. He gets a qualifying offer, for sure, if the Cubs really want him, they will have to offer a market rate extension. It should be noted that Bellinger is a year younger than Happ. I’d rather keep him than Happ.

Duane Pesice: I agree, Al, provided he hits. How soon for Mervis? Morel?

Sara Sanchez: Morel only comes back if he slashes the K rate in Iowa. Honestly I’m already mad that Mervis isn’t playing instead of Hosmer.

Josh Timmers: I can’t see Bellinger with the Cubs after this year. Either he’ll stink and the Cubs let him go or he’ll be great and he’ll be looking at a huge offer that the Cubs won’t make. (Nor should they.)

Rob Huff: Morel is up in April. Someone gets hurt and he’s the natural fit, well, everywhere. Mervis in June.

Sara Sanchez: This team is not competitive. Mervis already figured out Iowa, let him get reps in Chicago.

Rob Huff: Mervis has killed it at every level, but he’s also at only 882 PAs as a professional, after pitching for two years at Duke. The dude needs everyday reps and I don’t think they’re ready to give him those in Chicago.

Duane Pesice: Mervis is a Rios or Hosmer slump away.

Sara Sanchez: Hosmer has been in a slump since 2016.

Josh Timmers: Mervis was godawful in 2021. He’s had one great year. Let’s let him get some more seasoning before throwing him into the majors this season.

Al Yellon: If Bellinger is “great,” keep him, let Happ go. Bellinger can play LF in 2024 when PCA is up. Further thoughts: This team should be fun to watch, a lot more fun than they were a year ago. They’ve got the possibility of being really good. Yes, a lot has to go right for that to happen, but it COULD, and that’s the fun part

Josh Timmers: I think the diversity of opinion in this chat is reflective of the diversity of possible outcomes for the team this year. The bottom line is that none of us really know. This is a very enigmatic team.

Duane Pesice: They have to let it happen and not try to micromanage it.

Sara Sanchez: I am (obviously) the most pessimistic among us about this team. There are very few players I’m excited about and the prospects I’m excited about either didn’t make the team or are two-plus years away in the minors. It is a frustrating time from my perspective as a Cubs fan, but I’ll still go watch them play about once a homestand. After all, the Cubs are my longest term relationship outside of my family, even if that relationship is complicated. (My relationship with the Cubs is complicated, not with my family.)

Thomas Smith: I’m interested In seeing if the player development is sustainable. And I’m excited about improving pace of play.

Duane Pesice: I hate the pitch clock.

Al Yellon: The pace of play, I can tell you, is amazing. The pitch clock has been the best thing baseball has done in decades. I absolutely love 2:30 games.

Josh Timmers: I’ve been a fan of the pitch clock since they instituted it in the minors. I thought I’d hate it and I did not.

Sara Sanchez: I have not loved it at all but I haven’t seen an MLB game in person with it yet.

Thomas Smith: Yeah. I’m here for shorter games. I will watch more games than in the past.

Rob Huff: 1. The Cubs are interesting and fun. 2. It realllllllly sucks watching Willson wear red at Wrigley. 3. This team never gets really hot and never gets really cold, just kind of hanging around all year.

Sara Sanchez: I will be cheering for Willson, to be clear.

Josh Timmers: Still hate the runner on second thing though.

Al Yellon: Yes, the “Manfred Man” should be killed with fire.

Duane Pesice: Nuke it from orbit.

Al Yellon: The other rule changes are fine, too, I am a fan of the shift restrictions, and the bigger bases should make for more stolen bases.

Josh Timmers: I was against the shift restrictions, but I’m willing to give it a chance.

Al Yellon: I just got tired of seeing the third baseman play right field.

Josh Timmers: Fair, but I think the shift restrictions favor grip it and rip it left handed hitters, and we don’t want to encourage that.

Thomas Smith: I liked what I saw at a spring game I went to here in Florida

Rob Huff: The most exciting parts of the season are (i) figuring out what Jed will do in July with a team that is in the mix but not great, and (ii) PCA/Davis/Alcantara/Mervis/Hernandez.

Duane Pesice: Watching Steele and Wesneski is the best part, for me.

Al Yellon: I watched PCA play center field this spring. That guy could play Gold Glove defense in the majors right now. Still needs work on his hitting, of course. He’s going to be a star

Duane Pesice: He has the personality, too.

Thomas Smith: Can’t wait for PCA, for sure.

Josh Timmers: Don’t forget about Brennen Davis! He could be up in May if he gets off to a great start and there’s a place for him to play. And he’s got massive talent if he can just stay healthy. (Might strike out a lot, though.)

Al Yellon: I know the Cubs were considering at PCA in the 2020 draft when they took Ed Howard. Now the Cubs have him in exchange for two months of Javy Báez. That’s a pretty good swap.

Josh Timmers: To be fair, 2020 was a hard draft on every front office

Duane Pesice: I just read several articles about that and would agree. PCA was a steal. So was Wesneski.

Thomas Smith: Yep. Robbery. Those trades were quite good.

Duane Pesice: Yeah. I have to give Jed credit.

Al Yellon: Yes, the Yankees have had so many pitching injuries I’d bet they’d love to have Wesneski back right now

Josh Timmers: Especially since Effross is one of those injuries.

Rob Huff Regarding PCA: I actually don’t want to see him in Chicago this year until September. The M’s might have ruined Kelenic by rushing him.

Al Yellon: Yeah, there’s no reason for PCA in the majors at all this year. He likely starts at Double-A, maybe Iowa late in the year, then the Cubs send him to the Fall League.

Josh Timmers: If the Cubs are in the playoff hunt in September, PCA will be in the majors as a defensive specialist. Otherwise he makes his debut next year.

Rob Huff: PCA has only played 107 games as a pro — such a baby.

Thomas Smith: Yeah. I’m a no on PCA unless he is out of this world.

Al Yellon: He just turned 21 a few days ago! He’s got lots of time.

Duane Pesice: Davis and Mervis are next in line, I think.

Thomas Smith: Josh’s scenario makes perfect sense. No reason to start clocks or use roster space, and the team should totally give Davis time first.

Duane Pesice: If Davis blows up Triple-A, he’ll be up FAST — and he might, he could.

Josh Timmers: I’m going to make a pitch for Ben Brown to be in the majors this year. If there’s a mid-season injury to the starting rotation, he could be the one to fill it. And he could be really good. (That’s another one of those great trades from last year.)

Al Yellon: We have covered a lot of ground here! Anyone with some final thoughts?

Thomas Smith: Let’s do it!

Duane Pesice: Let’s get it started!

Rob Huff: I really hope we don’t have to watch Nick Madrigal play 3B in anything other than an emergency this year (or ever). Otherwise, let’s see what the heck happens with this hodgepodge group!

Al Yellon: I am, as always, excited for the season to begin, despite some mediocre weather in Chicago this weekend. Let’s play ball!

Josh Timmers: Mediocre weather out here in California too.

Duane Pesice: Same.

Al Yellon: It was probably the worst Arizona spring training weather I’ve ever experienced

Duane Pesice: Worst I have, and I’ve been here for 25 years.

Thomas Smith: Beautiful here in Florida. Upper 80s sunny, humidity mild.

Al Yellon: That’ll happen in Chicago in June. Maybe

Josh Timmers: I’ve just got flooding everywhere. At least my house is warm and dry

Al Yellon: Thanks everyone!

Josh Timmers: Thanks everyone.

Duane Pesice: Cheers.

Thomas Smith: Thanks everyone. Good to be back.

Rob Huff: Thanks everyone.

Sara Sanchez: Love chatting Cubs with y’all even when I’m the resident pessimist.