Chicago Cubs roundup: What went right/wrong? fantasy slants
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2022 Record: 74-88
Third Place, NL Central
Team ERA: 4.00 (20th in MLB)
Team OPS: .698 (17th in MLB)
WHAT WENT RIGHT
After opting to keep Willson Contreras and Ian Happ through the August 2 trade deadline, the Cubs went on to post a 33-27 record over their final 60 games. They were 39-31 after the All-Star break, the best second-half record of the 18 teams that did not make the playoffs. Contreras, despite missing blocks of time due to hamstring issues, topped 20 home runs for the third straight full season while earning his third career All-Star nod. Happ, the Cubs’ other All-Star representative, put up team highs in RBI (72) and runs scored (72) and finished tied for sixth among all MLB hitters in doubles with 42. Nico Hoerner batted .281 with 10 homers and 20 steals while playing excellent defense at shortstop to lead the club in fWAR (4.0). Seiya Suzuki, signed for five years, $85 million out of Japan, started strong and finished strong around a lengthy IL stint for a sprained finger. Christopher Morel went yard in his first MLB plate appearance and registered an overall .741 OPS with 16 homers and 10 steals in his first 113 big league games. Marcus Stroman, inked to a two-year, $50 million free agent deal, posted a 3.50 ERA in 25 starts. Patrick Wisdom reached the 25-homer plateau for the second consecutive year. Justin Steele delivered a 3.18 ERA in 24 starts and got better and better as the season marched on. As a whole, the Cubs’ pitching staff worked to a 3.30 ERA after the Midsummer Classic, the fifth-best such mark among all 30 major league clubs. Wrigley Field remained Wrigley Field, the liveliest stadium in the sport even through dry spells.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Muddled within some promising stretches, the Cubs lost 10 straight games between June 4-16 and nine straight games between July 7-16. They were 6-13 against the arch-rival Cardinals, who ultimately claimed the National League Central title. And they went 0-7 versus the Dodgers, who grabbed the No. 1 seed on the NL side of the postseason bracket. In the end, the lovable losers -- are we bringing that back? -- had a 37-58 record when facing teams above .500. Kyle Hendricks did not pitch after the first week of July because of a right shoulder strain and struggled to a 4.80 ERA when healthy. Andrelton Simmons, brought aboard on a one-year, $4 million contract in March, appeared in only 34 games before getting released in early August. Nick Madrigal dealt with back and groin problems and hit just .249/.305/.282 in 228 plate appearances. Opening Day first baseman Frank Schwindel was a negative WAR player and got cut loose in mid-September. Cubs infielders altogether had a 238/.308/.383 slash line. Jason Heyward, in the final year of his eight-year, $184 million pact, sunk to a .556 OPS and fell off defensively. Adbert Alzolay, considered an attractive late-round option during fantasy draft season, did not pitch until the closing weeks due to shoulder trouble. Wade Miley and Drew Smyly also spent large chunks of the year on the IL. Oh, and Hoerner was somehow shut out for NL Gold Glove Award consideration at short.
** Happ is almost certain to be the earliest-selected Cubs player next spring, if he is indeed still on the Cubs when draft season arrives. The switch-hitting 28-year-old outfielder is owed a significant raise via salary arbitration and can become a free agent next winter. The knock has been that he tends to struggle against left-handed pitching, but Happ posted a better OPS (.788) off lefties than he did off righties (.780) in 2022. Ranking in the 93rd percentile of all MLB hitters this year in max exit velocity, some of his doubles should turn into home runs moving forward. A trade into a better supporting cast would certainly boost the five-category fantasy projections in Happ’s already-intriguing individual profile.
** The overall sum to pluck Suzuki away from the Hiroshima Carp of Nippon Professional Baseball was $99.6 million, the largest commitment ever for a Japanese position player. Had he not injured his finger in May, the dynamic 28-year-old outfielder might have challenged Spencer Strider and Michael Harris II for 2022 NL Rookie of the Year. Suzuki put up a .934 OPS in April and a .309/.385/.495 batting line across his final 109 plate appearances between late August and early October. He finished in the 77th percentile in both barrel rate and sprint speed. With a cleaner bill of health in 2023, there is full-on breakout potential here.
** Which of the upstart Cubs pitchers are worthy of attention? Steele definitely stands out as a crafty lefty with a lot of swing-and-miss in his arsenal. The command could use a bit of fine tuning, but he turned in a 2.05 ERA and 80 strikeouts over his final 79 innings (14 starts) to close out the season. Hayden Wesneski, acquired from the Yankees for Scott Effross, registered a 2.18 ERA and 33/7 K/BB ratio over his first 33 major league frames down the stretch. Javier Assad flashed as well, and Adrian Sampson excelled in the run prevention department despite a 6.3 K/9. Keegan Thompson may be of interest too if he can rise out of a swingman role.
** Beyond the infectious energy he brings, Morel carries the data to back up his promising first-year showing. The versatile 23-year-old placed in the 88th percentile of all MLB position players in both max exit velocity and sprint speed. He was caught on seven of his 17 stolen base attempts, but there’s no reason to believe that he’ll remain so inefficient in that regard as a sophomore. Morel offers sneaky 20/20 upside, with the added benefit of Yahoo eligibility at shortstop, second base, third base, and the outfield. Hoerner got to 20 steals this year and promises to remain a solid source of batting average as well.
** David Robertson was the Cubs’ leader in saves with 14 even though he got dealt to the Phillies just prior to the August 2 trade deadline. There was sort of an audition process for the closer role over the final two months of the season, and Brandon Hughes eventually took the reins. The 26-year-old pitched to an overall 3.12 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 68/21 K/BB ratio in his first 57 2/3 major league innings and successfully converted eight saves between August 18 and October 5. He figures to be the primary ninth-inning man on the North Side of Chicago leading into the 2023 campaign.
** There was chatter in September that the Cubs might call up Matt Mervis for his first cup of MLB coffee. It didn’t happen, but he could very well be in consideration for the Opening Day roster in 2023. The 24-year-old first baseman exploded to the tune of a .309/.379/.606 slash line with 36 home runs, 40 doubles, and 119 RBI in 137 games this summer between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, and he has been lighting it up in the Arizona Fall League. Pete Crow-Armstrong, Brennen Davis, Kevin Alcantara, Cristian Hernandez, James Triantos, and Owen Caissie are some other names to watch on the farm.
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Team Needs: Offense, primarily. The last great Cubs team was built on incredible position player talent, and the pitching needs were largely addressed via free agency. That script has flipped to where the Cubs now have a fairly impressive array of internal arms but might have to spend big on bats. Word is the front office plans to be aggressive in upgrading that portion of the depth chart this offseason. We’ll soon find out.