2023 Record: 83-79 (.512)
Second Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 4.09 (14th)
Team OPS: .751 (8th)
What Went Right
Not even the most optimistic Cubs fan could have predicted Cody Bellinger’s return to dominance. The 27-year-old signed a one-year pact with the Cubs that included a mutual option for 2024 that remains highly unlikely Bellinger will accept. Nico Hoerner and Dansby Swanson were an elite up-the-middle combination and should continue to provide above-average defense for years to come. Ian Happ was his typical steady eddy self and Seiya Suzuki’s second half was out of this world and showed everyone why the Cubs were so eager to sign the outfielder two winters ago. Justin Steele was in the hunt for the NL Cy Young Award but his final three starts likely put him out of contention for the award, but he will likely get some down-ballot support. Once Cubs skipper David Ross felt comfortable to give Adbert Alzolay a shot in the ninth, he ran away with the job and should come into camp with the role of closer.
What Went Wrong
The Cubs signed Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer to fill their hole at first base and that combo went .234/.296/.334 with six homers across 363 plate appearances. Hosmer was released from the team in May, and Mancini remained on the team until August 2 before he inked a minor league deal with the Reds. The Cubs also bumbled their two free-agent pitching signings of Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly. Smyly ended the season in the bullpen due to his struggles during the summer months and Taillon struggled to a 4.84 ERA and 1.28 WHIP across 154 ⅓ innings.
**After back-to-back seasons of below .660 OPS, the former NL MVP bounced back in a major way, slashing .307/.356/.525 with 26 homers, 20 steals, and 97 RBI across 556 plate appearances. Possibly even more impressive than the stat line was that he lowered his strikeout rate from 27.3 percent to 15.6 percent and lowered his swinging strike rate to .3 percent, the lowest of his career. While his overall barrel rate and hard-hit rate won’t necessarily blow you off the page when he does connect with barrel up the baseball, 15 out of his 26 barrels were to the pull side, which is a great combination to get the most out of your hardest hit balls. Before the season, the now 28-year-old signed a one-year deal with the Cubs that included a mutual option for 2024 that all signs point to that he will reject, and he will surely hit the open market again this winter in search of a well-deserved large payday.
**Nico Hoerner ran his way into the hearts of Cubs fans as well as a few fantasy managers’ hearts when he more than doubled his stolen base output from 2022 by swiping 43 bags over 688 plate appearances this season. He slashed .283/.346/.383 with 98 runs scored, 68 RBI, and nine homers but ended the season on the injured list with a left knee contusion. The 26-year-old hasn’t shown much power since he entered the league in 2019, but if he keeps stealing the way he did this season while also hitting above league average, it won’t matter. Whenever he played, he was hitting leadoff, and that shouldn’t change, so his runs total, as long as the Cubs can find a replacement for Bellinger’s bat, should be around this same total during the 2024 campaign.
**Ian Happ was going around pick 150 in standard 12-team fantasy leagues this spring, and fantasy managers should feel okay with the pick. After inking an extension with the Cubs this winter, the 28-year-old hit .248/.360/.431 with 21 homers, 14 stolen bases, 86 runs, and 84 RBI across 691 plate appearances. After making gains against southpaws in 2022, Happ returned to being a below-average hitter against them in 2023, but even with his struggles, it remains unlikely that he will fall into a platoon role. If we are being honest, Happ’s profile has always confused me. He struggles every other year against fastballs (.302 in 2020, .236 in 2021, .313 in 2022, and .232 in 2023), so if we use the Giants World Series theory, then he should have an excellent season against the heater this year. All in all, where Happ goes in drafts won’t kill your team, and if the Cubs’ core remains intact, he should post plenty of counting stats next season.
**After posting a .776 OPS with the Braves, Dansby Swanson entered the free agency in a loaded free agent class last winter. He was one of the later big-time free agents to ink a deal but ended up with a seven-year, $177 million dollar contract with the club on the North Side of Chicago. While the 29-year-old didn’t flop, we wouldn’t say he tore the cover off the ball either, posting a .244/.328/.416 slash line, along with hitting 22 balls out of the park, swiping nine bases, and scoring 81 runs across 147 plate appearances. His season started off with a bang, hitting .286/.412/.347 in the first month of the season, but tailed off after that, hitting just .236/.308/.430 from May until the end of the season. The shortstop position is loaded to the brim with talent and while Swanson typically takes the field every day, he will likely go outside the top 20 in the position this time around.
**After an excellent first season stateside with the Cubs last season, many were calling for a breakout season for Seiya Suzuki and if you looked at the season-ending numbers, that call looks like a good one. However, it was a roller-coaster season for the Cubs outfielder to get to his .285/.357/.485 stat line. He started the season on the injured list after straining his left oblique during spring training which also caused him to withdrawal from the World Baseball Classic. After two months on the injured list, Suzuki returned to the Cubs lineup and hit .293/.385/.487 in his first 42 games. He then hit a massive slump in the summer months and shift to a platoon role in right field. He was given a four-game at the beginning of August to give him some rest and allow him to clear his head. After that, he helped the Cubs late summer run towards a playoff spot, hitting .349/.406/.667 over the final two months of the regular season.
**From an ERA perspective, Justin Steele had a fine season last year but what scared many, including myself, was his 1.35 WHIP across his 119 innings of work. Coming into the season, it seemed like there were two camps, pro-Justin Steele and pro-Hayden Wesneski. Guess which one I fell into? (Oops!) The 28-year-old lefty was outstanding this season. He lowered his ERA and WHIP and finished the season with a 3.06 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 173 ⅓ innings. If it weren’t for his final three games, where he clearly looked tired, he would have finished with a 2.49 ERA, and the NL Cy Young race would have been much more competitive. He missed some time this year with left forearm tightness but looked great and healthy after he returned from the injured list.
**Christopher Morel does plenty of things well but there are also some noticeable flaws. Taking a look at his Baseball Savant page, you see a bunch of red slider. His average exit velocity, barrel percentage, and hard-hit percentage are all above the 90th percentile. However, his whiff and strikeout percentages are ice-cold blue and at or below the tenth percentile. The team put up a red light when he was caught seven times last season. He swiped six bags on 123 stolen base opportunities (4.8 percent) versus his ten thefts on 130 opportunities (7.6 percent). Not exactly what you want to see, especially factoring in all the rule changes the league made prior to the season. After coming into the season with multi-positional eligibility, he continued to play around the diamond. Still, he will only be outfield eligible next season as he was one game short of getting to 20 games played at second base. Even with all the flaws, Morel should still go in most drafts this spring, due to his ability to smack balls out of the park, but he might be more valuable in roto league as opposed to weekly head-to-head leagues due to his volatile up-and-down play.
**After taking over the full-time closer role in June, Adbert Alzolay led the team with 22 saves but missed most of September with a right forearm strain. He finished the season on the mound, so he should be healthy enough to take over the role out of spring training next year. Julian Merryweather or Mark Leiter Jr. could fill in as a temporary closer if he isn’t ready to go. All signs point that he will be ready to go, and he will be looking to improve on a 2.67 ERA and 1.02 WHIP as the Cubs look to get back into the playoff since the 2020 pandemic shortened season.
Key Free Agents
Cody Bellinger, Jeimer Candelario, Michael Fulmer
The Cubs need to figure out how to fill a Cody Bellinger sized hole in their offense. There is a chance he comes back but there are, in theory, 29 other teams vying for his services as well. Even with signing veteran starters like Jameson Taillion and Drew Smyly, there are still major question marks as their rotation is projected to be: Steele, Marcus Stroman, Jameson Taillion, Jordan Wicks, and Javier Assad, if they do nothing this winter. They nearly made the playoffs but the front office has plenty of work to do to get them over the hump.