The 2023 Chicago Cubs For Dummies

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The 2023 Chicago Cubs For Dummies

Chicago Cubs

Last night, one of my friends texted me asking for “the best one thing to read ahead of Opening Day to get familiar with the 2023 Cubs.” And I had to pause for a second to think about it. We cover so much here so often, I think we lose sight of the fact that not everybody is obsessively tracking every single thing that comes out of 1060 West Addison (or Iowa, Tennessee, South Bend, and Myrtle Beach …). So here’s my effort to create something of a guide/preview for the regular season, which begins TOMORROW.

Cubs Free Agent Signings

If you hadn’t been paying attention this offseason, you might not recognize a ton of faces on Opening Day. The Cubs signed a lot of free agents this offseason and actually spent a ton of money, relative to the league. They likely didn’t spend ENOUGH money to be considered true World Series threats from where they were starting, but they made some noise.

  1. Dansby Swanson, SS – 7-years, $177M
  2. Jameson Taillon, SP – 4 years, $68M
  3. Drew Smyly, SP – 2 years, $19M
  4. Cody Bellinger, CF – 1 year, $17.5M
  5. Trey Mancini, 1B/DH/RF – 2 years, $14M
  6. Tucker Barnhart, C – 2 years, $6.5M
  7. Michael Fulmer, RP – 1 year, $4M
  8. Brad Boxberger, RP – 1 year, $2.8M
  9. Edwin Rios, DH/3B/1B – 1 year, $1M
  10. Eric Hosmer, DH/1B – 1 year, $720K

You can click on their names for details on each signing.

In short, Dansby Swanson was the big “get” of the offseason. The Cubs’ new shortstop had a career year with the Braves last season and wound up getting a lot more money than anyone predicted. He should hit in the middle of the Cubs lineup for years, thumping plenty of homers, striking out a pretty good amount, while playing high quality defense at short. The signing pushed Nico Hoerner (who just extended with the Cubs yesterday) to second base.

The Cubs bolstered their starting rotation by bringing back Drew Smyly, who’s usually quite good (when healthy), and adding Jameson Taillon, who just made 32 starts with a 3.91 ERA for the Yankees last season.

Cody Bellinger and Trey Mancini are the big wild cards for the Cubs this season. Both guys have played at extremely high levels in the past (Bellinger was an MVP with the Dodgers, Mancini raked in 2019), but both have fallen on harder times lately. Bellinger hurt himself and hasn’t been an MVP type since 2019, but he’s still young (27) and had a solid looking spring. Mancini is probably a safer bet to contribute right out of the gate, but it’s unclear if he’ll ever live back up to the expectations he set back in 2019: .291/.364/.535 (135 wRC+) with 35 HR.

Notable Cubs Exits

Free agency claimed the Cubs’ all-star catcher, Willson Contreras, who signed with the Cardinals, of all teams, to replace Yadier Molina. Contreras has turned full heel against the Cubs, talking about how much greater the Cardinals are as an organization, and we are no longer friends with him. You may boo him.

The Cubs also lost Wade Miley, who signed with the Brewers. Not a huge loss there. Jason Heyward had essentially already departed long before the season ended, but he is now with the Dodgers.

Cubs Position Players

DH – Edwin Rios, Trey Mancini, Eric Hosmer, Nick Madrigal
C – Tucker Barnhart, Yan Gomes, Luis Torrens
1B – Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini, Edwin Rios, Luis Torrens
2B – Nico Hoerner
3B – Nick Madrigal, Patrick Wisdom, Edwin Rios
SS – Dansby Swanson
LF – Ian Happ
CF – Cody Bellinger
RF – Seiya Suzuki (starting the year on the IL)
UTL – Miles Mastrobuoni

As you can see, the Cubs have a mixed group of completely set spots, and others where a whole lotta guys could get some run.

Unless Bellinger and Mancini bounce back in almost certainly unexpected ways, the 2023 Cubs lineup is seriously lacking thump. Theoretically, Suzuki and Happ are their best hitters, though Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner are expected to be steady contributors.

With that said, what this Cubs lineup lacks in offense, it makes up for in defense. And that was on purpose. The Cubs have Gold Glove winners/candidates in left field, center field, shortstop, and second base. And behind the plate, they chose to prioritize catching/framing/game calling with two well-respected veterans (Barnhart also has some Gold Glove hardware).

With a pitching staff that prioritizes weak contact and balls in play over strikeouts, top defense was a necessity. If the Cubs are going to over-achieve this year, it’ll probably be because of their pitching/defense.

Cubs Starting Rotation

  1. Marcus Stroman, RHP
  2. Justin Steele, LHP
  3. Jameson Taillon, RHP
  4. Drew Smyly, LHP
  5. Hayden Wesneski, RHP

Depth: Adrian Sampson (RHP, Iowa), Javier Assad (RHP, Cubs bullpen), Kyle Hendricks (RHP, IL)

Marcus Stroman is on his second season in a Cubs uniform and already got the nod as the Opening Day starter. Stroman had a slow start with the Cubs last year, but finished VERY strong: 2.56 ERA over final 16 starts (91.1 IP). He can choose to opt out of his deal with the Cubs and hit free agency at the end of the season.

Justin Steele arguably had his big breakout season in 2022, and is a highly anticipated pitcher around these parts. Jameson Taillon and Drew Smyly should be steady mid-rotation starters. And Hayden Wesneski is going to be one of the most exciting pitchers to follow all season. He’s a true rookie/pitching prospect who won his job in Spring Training. The Cubs traded reliever Scott Effross for Wesneski last season and it’s looking like a steal.

The Cubs’ starting depth is also quite strong this season, which is important because you NEVER make it through a year with just five starters.

Cubs Bullpen

  • Michael Fulmer, RHP (likely the initial closer)
  • Brad Boxberger, RHP
  • Adbert Alzolay, RHP
  • Javier Assad, RHP
  • Michael Rucker, RHP
  • Keegan Thompson, RHP
  • Julian Merryweather, RHP
  • Mark Leiter Jr., RHP (or Ryan Borucki, LHP)

Key Injuries: Brandon Hughes (LHP), Codi Heuer (RHP), Ethan Roberts

The Cubs have managed to create pretty excellent bullpens out of unsuspecting players in recent years, and this season figures to be no different. They don’t have an obvious closer, nor do they have any left-handed options if Brandon Hughes starts the season injured (TBD, I think). But Fulmer is expected to get the first crack at closing and Mark Leiter Jr. is particularly effective against lefties. So he’ll be the de facto vs. LHH guy to start the year.

Among the exciting bullpen storylines is Javier Assad, who missed out on the fifth starter gig, but performed so strongly in spring training and the World Baseball Classic that he made the team as a reliever. We’re also looking forward to Adbert Alzolay and Keegan Thompson’s first true attempt at focusing ONLY on relieving.

Top Cubs Prospects We Might See Soon

  • Christopher Morel, UTL
  • Matt Mervis, 1B/DH
  • Brennen Davis, OF

At some point this season, we will DEFINITELY see Christopher Morel back in Chicago. Morel broke onto the scene straight out of Double-A last year with success and energy, but faded down the stretch. He may well be one of the Cubs’ best-26 right now, but they’ve chosen to prioritize his development with an assignment to Triple-A. I believe that’s a testament to how much they believe he can impact the team down the line.

Everyone is waiting on Matt Mervis’s arrival. An undrafted signee in 2020, Mervis absolutely DEMOLISHED the minor leagues last season and is (hopefully/theoretically) everything this team is missing: a power-hitting left-handed bat to take over at first base for several years.

Mervis is in control of his own destiny and I strongly believe that he can be promoted after as little as one solid month in Iowa. When he does arrive, it could spell the end of the Eric Hosmer experiment at first base.

Brennen Davis, the Cubs’ previous #1 prospect (still a top-3 guy, leapfrogged by Pete Crow-Armstrong), was supposed to debut last season, but was injured for most of the season (back procedure), and then was slowed in the Arizona Fall League. He has a shot at making the team if he can establish himself at Iowa, and if a need opens up at some point on the big league roster.

  • Ben Brown, RHP
  • Caleb Kilian, RHP
  • Ryan Jensen, RHP
  • Miguel Amaya, C
  • Nelson Velázquez, OF
  • Alexander Canario, OF

These are some of the other Cubs’ top prospects on the 40-man roster, though their presence in Chicago this season (for one reason or another) is far from certain.

Then there’s center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, the Cubs top prospect. He’ll start the year out at Double-A, and there’s not necessarily an expectation that he’ll make the jump to Chicago this year. It is, however, a possibility, as he is ALREADY one of the top defensive center fielders in all of baseball.

Cubs Expectations

Looking like the third best team in the division, the Cubs are not projected to make the playoffs this season, but they are routinely counted among the “sleepers.” They will need a lot to go right for them to make it work (health among position players, the pitching+defense combo, some top prospect promotions/success), but it’s not inconceivable.

The strength and depth of teams in the NL West and East make the Wild Card a tough ask, so it may be the division or bust. The Cardinals are the favorites and the Brewers are a strong second.

The REALISTIC goal for this team is to avoid selling off at the trade deadline for the third straight season, perhaps even putting themselves in a position to ADD, so that we’re still watching competitive baseball in September.

Cool Cubs Opponents/Events

You can check out the Cubs full schedule right here, but among the series I’m most anticipating:

New MLB Rules

In case you missed it, there are a lot of new rules in MLB this season. Among the highlights:

  • Shift limits (must be two infielders on both sides of 2B, with both feet on the infield)
  • Bigger bases (the bases are bigger, improving player safety and cutting down on distance between bags)
  • Pickoff limits (pitcher gets just two pickoff attempts per PA, if he attempts a third, he must either get the runner out or it’s a balk)
  • Pitch Clock (After getting the ball, pitchers have 15 seconds to begin their delivery with no one on base, 20 seconds with base runners. Batters must be ready and attentive to the pitcher with 8 seconds left on the clock).

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami