The Cubs wrapped up a good second half of 2022 (39-31) with a strong 16-6 finish capped off by a blowout win over the Reds Wednesday.
What does it mean for 2023? Maybe nothing, and for what it’s worth, two-time champion and manager David Ross has tempered expectations before seeing what his roster looks like come next season.
“I think the thing I’ll look back on is how far away we are from championship-caliber baseball and wrap my brain around that and what’s the next step,” Ross said this week in Cincinnati.
There is some optimism in the clubhouse entering the offseason, when Cubs president Jed Hoyer expects to be “aggressive.”
“The exciting part comes with playing well down the stretch and some of the hard work and growth paying off in areas,” Ross added, “and knowing there will be some additions this offseason and we’ll get closer to where we want to be.”
In the meantime, here are a few things that mattered from the second half.
Rotation, pitching success
The Cubs pitching staff was among the best in baseball after the All-Star break, ranking fifth with a 3.30 ERA behind the playoff-bound Dodgers, Astros, Guardians and Braves.
The rotation’s 2.89 ERA ranked third, behind the Astros and Dodgers. That includes Marcus Stroman’s 2.71 ERA (14 starts), Drew Smyly’s 2.83 (11) and Adrian Sampson’s 3.00 (14), along with promising contributions from rookies Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski.
Suzuki was expected to go through an adjustment period this season as he acclimated himself to the rigors of an MLB schedule and playing in a new league.
He had an up-and-down season, winning NL Rookie of the Month in April before falling into a slump that preceded a five-week stint on the injured list with a finger injury.
His production picked up after returning, and he had a good September, hitting .321/.379/.547 in 15 games. All said, he hit .262/.336/.433 with 14 home runs and 46 RBIs in 111 games.
“Numbers-wise, I feel like I’m not satisfied,” Suzuki said during the Cubs’ final homestand, “and I feel like I can do a lot better.
“The most important thing is I’m getting used to life here, and that’s going to be a huge benefit for me next year, baseball-wise, too. I’m excited about that.”
The biggest question facing Happ entering 2022 was whether he could maintain a full season’s worth of production after his career had been defined by extreme highs and lows at the plate.
He answered that question with a good all-around season highlighted by his first career All-Star nod.
Happ hit .271/.342/.440, tallying a career-high in games (158) and bWAR (4.3). He tallied 17 homers and 72 RBIs, sacrificing some power while cutting down on his strikeouts in an improved approach. Happ’s 23.2 percent strikeout rate this season is a new personal best.
Beyond his offense, Happ put himself in the Gold Glove conversation just by being able to focus on one position. His eight Defensive Runs Saved in left field also a career high.
“He’s just getting such a well-rounded game,” Ross said.
“You’ve seen a growth of a young man that’s gone through a lot of adversity, tried to please a lot of people, tried to maximize what everybody else wanted. And I think he’s learned over time that this is where I’m going to be the best version of me, and it’s been a really good version.”
Adding more power to the lineup is on the Cubs’ offseason priorities list, but a potential in-house boost could come from Franmil Reyes.
Reyes, a well-regarded clubhouse presence whom the Cubs picked up off waivers in August, showed enough down the stretch and is in the team’s plans for 2023.
“I think he’ll be part of our fit next year and really help us out,” Ross said.
Reyes hit 14 home runs between the Guardians and Cubs in 118 games this season, but his résumé shows he has more power to tap into. He hit 37 homers in 2019 and 30 in 2021.
Wesneski's Cubs career has gotten off to a good start since he came over from the Yankees organization in the Scott Effross trade.
After an impressive big-league debut out of the bullpen, Wesneski moved to the rotation for the final few weeks and threw three quality starts in four tries, posting a 1.85 ERA in 24 1/3 innings as a starter.
“I thought he threw great. Every outing he gave us a chance to win,” Ross said after Wesneski’s final start this week against the Reds. “He threw strikes, had command of the zone with multiple pitches.
“Very nice season for us, nice major-league debut.”
A debut that has him firmly in the mix next spring for a spot in the Opening Day rotation.
Justin Steele was at the forefront of the rotation’s success post All-Star break before going down with a back injury at the end of August.
While the injury was not serious, there was no reason to bring Steele back between the Cubs having nothing to play for, his body of work this season and him setting new career-highs for innings and starts.
Steele led Cubs starters with a 0.98 ERA post-break (seven starts, 36 2/3 innings). He made 24 starts on the season, finishing with a 3.18 ERA in 119 innings while establishing himself as a key rotation piece entering the offseason.
It looked like Alzolay was going to be a big part of the Cubs’ pitching plans this season before he went down with a shoulder injury in spring training that kept him out until September.
But we got a glimpse down the stretch of how he could impact next year’s pitching plans, in a role he’s already preparing for: multi-inning relief.
Alzolay — who had success in that role late last season, when the Cubs moved him to the bullpen to monitor his workload — made six appearances after returning from the injured list.
Five of those were at least two-inning outings. He didn’t allow a run in his final three appearances, striking out nine in 6 1/3 innings.