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Rebuild Report: Chicago Cubs


Cubs' IF Nick Madrigal; Photo via Minda Haas Kuhlmann

It is no secret the Chicago Cubs have been in rebuild mode since the 2020 offseason when they traded Yu Darvish for next to nothing after he finished second in NL Cy Young voting. At the 2021 trade deadline, the club moved a total of 9 players in a week and changed the trajectory of the franchise for years to come. For reference, Kyle Hendricks is the only player from the 2016 World Series Championship team still with the club. The Cubs were not able to reach any extension deals with their core pieces, leading to anarchy at the 2021 deadline.

The World Series years were over, and Chicago began building something new. Many of the prospects acquired over the last two seasons are starting to have an impact, which is why the Cubs are ranked around the #10 farm system baseball, depending on which ranking system you look at.


Last season, the Cubs were not good. The team ranked in the bottom third of the league in value produced by offense, pitching, and fielding. It was frustrating to watch because the Cubs were crying broke, even though they are in the 3rd largest media market in the country, according to Nielsen. They were a large market team acting like the Pirates, who the Cubs were barely better than.


The biggest issue was pitching. The Cubs’ starters and relievers ranked 24th and 28th, respectively, in value produced last season, which is problematic and highlights an organizational issue. Scott Effross was the best pitcher on the team last year, but they traded him to the Yankees at the deadline despite his 5 additional years of team control. Justin Steele was the next-best pitcher, and Marcus Stroman showed flashes of his old self but overall had just an okay year. No one was truly dealing.


Kyle Hendricks is holding the rotation back; he is past his prime and unable to offer meaningful value. There is some hope for the future in Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson, who are young and will get better with time. Otherwise, there is much to be desired. In free agency, they signed Jameson Taillon and Michael Fulmer. Tallion is a solid addition. He is not a strikeout king but also does not walk people. Fulmer adds depth to a depleted bullpen and has an opportunity to bounce back after regression in the second half of 2022. He has looked great this spring, which is hopefully a sign of what is to come.


Offensively, the 2022 Cubs struggled to consistently plate runs. There was a lot of swing-and-miss in the lineup, and many rookies were learning how to hit at the major league level. The lineup construction was not balanced. Key players like Zach McKinstry and Nick Madrigal missing extended time led to the shortcomings. Additionally, offense was down across the league in 2022. That is not to say Chicago’s lackluster offensive season was acceptable, but it also was not a local problem. The Cubs' current lineup might benefit from the MLB’s new rule changes and bounce back in a big way.


The ownership group invested in hitters this offseason, bringing in Cody Bellinger, Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini, and Dansby Swanson. They improved, especially defensively, but the Cubs still don’t look like they can compete for the division crown. Bellinger is an interesting story because of what his ceiling is: MVP-caliber baseball. Of course, that is a level he hasn’t played at consistently since 2019. He might benefit from the change of scenery; worst case scenario, he is on a one-year deal. There is no such thing as a bad one-year deal. Hosmer is an upgrade in the lineup but a borderline liability at first base, ranking in the 30th percentile for Outs Above Average. Mancini can DH and offers additional power to the lineup. Getting Dansby was the biggest move of the offseason. He is signed through the next 7 years and looks to be the centerpiece for the Cubs to build around. While not being known for his power like the other free agent signings, Swanson, along with Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal, offers a good contact bat to balance out the sluggers in the lineup.


On the other side of the coin, they lost Willson Contreras, one of the best offensive catchers in the league, to the St. Louis Cardinals. Filling the void will be difficult; they will probably platoon at catcher, with Tucker Barnhart being the everyday catcher. This is nothing of note; he offers very little, but Chicago needs someone to catch the ball.


The farm system is loaded with outfield talent. Pete Crow-Armstrong, acquired from the Mets in exchange for Javier Baez and Trevor Williams, is the most touted prospect in the system. Crow-Armstrong offers much excitement for the future. However, player development has been a hurdle in recent years. Growth from within has been limited, and there have been few homegrown pieces to succeed recently. OFs Brennan Davis and Kevin Alcántra hope to change that and are the next biggest names in the farm system. The Cubs will have a backlog of talented outfielders in the coming years, which is a good problem to have.


There is also concern regarding pitching development. Only a few teams have this aspect of the game figured out, and the Cubs are trying to become one of them. Hayden Wesneski and Caleb Kilian have both had strong outings this spring and are fighting for spots in the pitching rotation. Both young studs were acquired through trades over the last two years. Wesneski was the headliner of the Scott Effross trade, and Kilian was a part of the Kris Bryant trade. Cade Horton and Jordan Wicks are the two biggest pitching prospects still in the farm system and need at least another year to develop before they are close to MLB-ready.


Simply put, the Cubs are not in a place to challenge the Cardinals for the division, but they have a higher ceiling than most think. They can compete with the Brewers purely because of the Brewers’ lack of offense. The Cubs lineup has upside, but there is a little bit of a backlog of position players, which means the lineup might be changing daily. The season goal for this young club is to win the season series against the Pirates, Reds, and Brewers and finish second in the division. Achieving that would be a huge step forward. Their ceiling is what the pitching will allow, which unfortunately does not look like anything great. This club is moving in the right direction, but holes still need to be addressed, whether through free agency or internal development. This team needs more time before it is back to October consistently, and that is okay. The rebuilding process is slow, but the growth seen from the acquired pieces is huge and something Cub fans should be excited about. It could always be worse; remember, the Rockies exist.



Sources:



"Nick Madrigal" via Minda Haas Kuhlmann licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


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