by Chris Duzyk

NL Central Opponent Preview: Chicago Cubs

Suffering their first losing season since 2014, the Cubs dismantled their group of core stars responsible for a World Series and 94-win average from 2015 to 2019 (projected 91 for shortened 2020) at the trade deadline last season. The Cubs’ payroll currently sits at a projected $126 million, down from the $153 million last season and just under what would have been $200 million in 2020.

2021 Recap

Five games below .500 at the trade deadline, the Cubs parted ways with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Joc Pederson, and Craig Kimbrel. These moves led to a final record of 71-91 and a 4th-place finish in the NL Central. Frank Schwindel was a bright spot in the aftermath of the trades, posting a wRC+ of 163, including 13 home runs and a .613 slugging percentage. Patrick Wisdom was boom or bust, mashing 28 home runs over 375 plate appearances (good for the Cubs’ rookie record) but also posting an astonishing 40.8% strikeout rate.

The Cubs’ starting pitching posted an xFIP of 4.57, good for 21st in the league. Adding relief pitchers to the mix helped bring that number down to 4.43 but still left Chicago at 20th overall. An overall staff K% of 21.9% put the Cubs in a similar position of 21st across the league. Kyle Hendricks ate up the most innings and left with a 14-7 record but posted a higher xFIP (4.61) and xERA (4.99) than both Alec Mills (4.33 xFIP, 4.79 xERA) and Adbert Alzolay (3.66 xFIP, 4.60 xERA).

The Cubs hitting tried to prop up the starting pitching and bullpen until the deadline, when Rizzo, Baez, and Bryant were all moved for prospects. The wheels fell off for a 21-36 stretch to end the season.

Offseason Moves

The Cubs moved perhaps their four biggest stars at the trade deadline last season to begin what they described as a “reload,” not a “rebuild.” MLB.com lists the Cubs as the 18th best farm system, up from 22nd prior to the 2021 season, with six of their seven top prospects coming from the draft or trades in the last year and a half.

Posting career lows in most statistics, including xERA, xBA, and xSLG, Zach Davies left through free agency to join the Diamondbacks.

The Cubs made two big splashes during free agency, getting Marcus Stroman on a three-year deal to be the potential ace of the rotation and signing Japanese phenom Seiya Suzuki to a five-year, $85 million contract. Stroman finished 2021 with a career-high 21.7 K% and a 3.57 xFIP.

The Cubs filled two positional needs with Andrelton Simmons and Clint Frazier and brought depth at catcher with Yan Gomes to back up Willson Contreras. Frazier projects as a slightly above-average offensive player for 2022 playing left field and DH. Simmons will compete for time at shortstop and is currently nursing a shoulder injury.

Reds fans will see a few familiar faces with the Cubs this season as Mychal Givens will join as one of the top bullpen options, and Wade Miley will slide in as the number three in the rotation once back from the IL. As most of us will remember, the Reds declined to pick up Miley’s option and failed to find a trade partner, only for the Cubs to pick up Miley’s $10 million option off waivers. While enjoying a resurgent season last year, Miley benefitted from some luck when considering his 4.12 xERA vs. an actual 3.37 ERA.

David Robertson, Chris Martin, and Daniel Norris join Givens on one-year deals as the Cubs attempt to address one of their most significant issues in their relief pitching. Chicago also brought Drew Smyly in to compete for the fifth rotation spot or potentially be an option out of the bullpen.

Key Position Players

All eyes will be on Seiya Suzuki and his transition from Japan to Major League Baseball this year. After hitting for a .317 average and 38 home runs for Hiroshima last season, projections range from a .275 average with 24 home runs (ZiPS) to a .287 average and 29 home runs, leading to over 140 wRC+ (Steamer) that would position him towards the top of the league for 2022.

There are a few holes in the Cubs lineup, but it will not likely be the Achilles heel for the club this year. Familiar to Reds fans, Willson Contreras and Ian Happ will add some pop and overall above-average offense to the lineup. Nick Madrigal’s 7.9 K% was good for 3rd in the league last year among players with at least 200 plate appearances, and he will look to continue getting on base at a higher clip. While the 29-year-old Frank Schwindel won back-to-back rookie of the month awards to end the year last year, his .348 BABIP would indicate he is a candidate for heavy regression towards the league average wRC+.

According to FanGraphs’ projected depth charts, below are the projected starters and corresponding Steamer wRC+ projections for 2022. Nico Hoerner (projected 99 wRC+) seems to be the likely replacement for Simmons if he is not ready to go with the shoulder injury.

  • C Willson Contreras (107 wRC+)
  • 1B Frank Schwindel (111 wRC+)
  • 2B Nick Madrigal (107 wRC+)
  • 3B Patrick Wisdom (92 wRC+)
  • SS Andrelton Simmons (83 wRC+)
  • LF Ian Happ (114 wRC+)
  • CF Jason Heyward (96 wRC+)
  • RF Seiya Suzuki (145 wRC+)
  • DH Clint Frazier (107 wRC+)
Key Pitchers

The top three of the Cubs rotation seemed set with Marcus Stroman, Kyle Hendricks, and Wade Miley until Miley’s elbow inflammation landed him on the IL last Friday. The likely opening day starter, Kyle Hendricks, enters his 9th season coming off the worst season of his career. Hendricks finished in the bottom 12% of the league in xBA and bottom 8% in K% while posting an xERA of 4.95.

Referring to Alec Mills, David Ross stated they are “going to plan for Millsy to be a starter.” That leaves several others vying for the two final rotational spots, including newly signed Drew Smyly, Justin Steele, and Keegan Thompson. A lefty, Steele appeared 20 times with nine starts last season for the Cubs, posting a 4.21 xFIP and 23.8 K%, though he did struggle with the long ball, giving up 1.89 HR/9. Thompson has reportedly been going through a starter’s program this spring as well. He appeared in 32 games last season, including six starts. Thompson struggled with control while posting a 4.72 xFIP, allowing 12.8 BB%.

The Cubs rotation will be rather fluid, especially at the start of the year. Expect Miley into the rotation upon return from the IL, and once Alzolay returns from his lat strain, he could contend for the fifth spot as well.

2022 Outlook

Having leveraged what was once a fertile farm system in their “win-now” window, the Cubs are still in rebuild mode with win projections ranging from 72 (PECOTA) to 75 (FanGraphs). These projections would put Chicago in a tight battle for 3rd in the division with our Cincinnati Reds and well outside the playoff picture. The lack of starting pitching depth and bullpen production are where the Cubs will likely face issues this season.

Featured Image: Certified Reds killer Ian Happ (Credit: Ian D’Andrea)

Chris began his Reds fandom with family trips from central Kentucky to Riverfront Stadium. At a young age, he had to learn to swing a wiffle ball bat left handed to properly imitate Ken Griffey Jr. and Sean Casey in backyard games against his brother. A graduate from Centre College, he was able to combine his love of baseball statistics and analytics often into his statistics and econometrics courses. He currently is living in Northern Kentucky where all it takes is a simple walk across the bridge to enjoy the games. Find him on Twitter @cduzyk.