During the start of the 2022 season and during most of the past offseason, Jed Hoyer and the Chicago Cubs leadership have avoided calling the Cubs 2022 and next couple of seasons a “rebuild”. Despite the assertion that the Cubs aren’t looking at a long-term project similar to the one Theo Epstein and Hoyer put in motion when they were hired in 2011, the team stands at 23-33, fourth in the NL Central behind the Pirates with a worse record than the Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Marlins.
The start to 2022 that the team has had doesn’t mean the Cubs can’t be competitive in 2023. Seiya Suzuki and Marcus Stroman, who both joined the team last offseason, will be important players for the Cubs beyond just this season after signing multi-year contracts. In addition, Nico Hoerner is beginning to emerge as not only a great defensive player, but a valuable part of the Cubs lineup. On the mound, Justin Steele, Caleb Kilian, and Keegan Thompson are part of a group of young pitchers that should start making significant contributions at the big-league level.
However, if the Cubs do want to be competitive as soon as next season, there are some key decisions and moves that have to be made over the next couple of months before the end of 2022.
Extending Willson Contreras
Catcher is the most difficult position in baseball to find consistent production from, and players at the position who produce offensively are some of the most valuable players in the sport. Willson Contreras has been one of the best hitters, regardless of position, in the MLB this season, and to be competitive next year the Cubs most likely need to extend his contract; rather than trading him and finding a replacement in an offseason where competition to sign or trade for players at the position will be intense, as always.
Contreras’ average exit velocity ranks in the 97th percentile amongst all players, and his barrel rate of 12.6% is 26th best in the MLB among qualified hitters. Contreras’ hard-hit rate is in the 99th percentile.
In 2022, Contreras’ contact quality has not only been the best by any catcher but is among the best in baseball overall. He has emerged as a likely starter at the All-Star Game in July (his main competition may be his brother William) and is the Cubs’ best all-around hitter this season.
Yasmani Grandal’s four-year, $73 million deal can probably serve as a benchmark for Contreras as he begins negotiations, although he will receive more than that. Contreras is a year younger than Grandal was when he signed his contract and will be coming off of a better season. JT Realmuto’s five-year, $115 million deal will be another benchmark, with Realmuto signing that contract a year younger, at 29, than Contreras is now.
As Contreras and the Cubs finish their arbitration case, it would be smart for the franchise to begin negotiations over a new contract. A deal for four years at about $95-$110 million would make sense for both sides, and allow the Cubs to keep not only one of their best players in the lineup but an important leader in the clubhouse.
Evaluating the Young Position Players Already on the Team
When the Cubs signed Clint Frazier this offseason it was an under-the-radar move that made sense for a team that had room in the outfield mix to add a player who has incredible talent but has never quite figured it out in the majors. However, Frazier has played only 19 games this season, although he did miss a couple of weeks due to appendicitis, and is frequently left on the bench in favor of Jason Heyward.
Heyward has continued to struggle this season, after a wRC+ of 68 in 2021, Heyward has a wRC+ of just 67 through 33 games in 2022. He remains a great defensive player, and for both the Cubs and the five-time gold glove winner it might make sense to make a change.
If the Cubs were to designate Heyward for assignment it would help them find more at-bats for Frazier, and other players who need to be evaluated, while helping alleviate 40-man roster issues. It would give Heyward the opportunity to see if he can join a team headed for the playoffs as a key defensive player off of the bench.
As 2022 comes to an end, it will be vital for the front office to evaluate which of the young players on the roster can contribute to next year’s team if the Cubs want to return to the playoffs. Christopher Morel has broken the franchise record for consecutive games where a rookie has reached base to start their career. What, at the time, looked like a promotion that would last just a few weeks has turned into Morel becoming a big part of the franchise’s plans for next season.
Ian Happ’s continued emergence will also be something to watch, as the Cubs need to evaluate whether or not to give the outfielder a contract extension. In addition, at-bats for Nick Madrigal, Hoerner, Frazier, Frank Schwindel, and Patrick Wisdom, amongst others, will be important as the Cubs evaluate the areas of the lineup that need the most improvement ahead of 2023.
Developing the Pitching Staff
The MLB debut of Caleb Kilian last week was one of the most exciting moments in recent memory for the Cubs, especially as it relates to pitching development. Outside of a tough fourth inning, Kilian was largely dominant, and will likely become a permanent member of the Cubs’ starting rotation after the trade deadline.
With the franchise likely to trade Wade Miley and Drew Smyly at the trade deadline, finding key contributors for next season’s rotation outside of Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks is one of the most important storylines to follow during the rest of the 2022 season.
Justin Steele has emerged as a reliable member of the Cubs rotation, and his underlying stats are even better than his actual production so far this year. Steele has pitched to a 4.79 ERA this season with a 1.55 WHIP, but his xERA of 3.36 points to results that have a lot of bad luck mixed in. There’s potential for Steele to improve this season just with better luck on batted-ball results, but he has continued to develop, with his start against the Cardinals on Sunday Night Baseball providing a glimpse into what could be an exciting future.
Keegan Thompson is another pitcher who has made a case to become a full-time member of the starting rotation, although his recent outing against the Orioles didn’t go the way the Cubs planned. It isn’t clear if Thompson’s best role in the long-term is as a starter or a multi-inning reliever, but either way, he should be a significant contributor to next year’s pitching staff.
Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills have both dealt with injuries, but Mills’ recent return from the IL will allow him to reenter the competition to become a starter again. Alzolay isn’t expected back until after the trade deadline, but the franchise remains excited about his potential, and he should be a member of the starting rotation next season.
Kilian, Matt Swarmer, and a few other young pitchers will also need to continue to be evaluated at the big-league level during the rest of this season. It is important for the front office to find out the most important places to focus on in the offseason, both in the pitching staff and the lineup. With the right moves in free agency the Cubs could be competitive in 2023, but that requires making the right evaluations and player development choices throughout the rest of 2022.