After finishing 71-91 and in 4th place of the NL Central, the Chicago Cubs offseason is filled with question marks. With a 2021 trade deadline that saw them trade away virtually the entire 2016 World Series core, big decisions loom in the offseason. Do they go all-in on a rebuild? Do they become major players in the free-agent market? Or, do they seek to simply compete in 2022 by signing several free agents to “prove it” deals?
Most feel that the last option is the route the front office will go. The next group of high-caliber prospects is unlikely to have an impact at Wrigley Field before 2023. That leaves the Cubs in a strange purgatory in 2022. They might vie for a wild card spot, but no one envisions them in the hunt for the division.
What Went Wrong in 2021?
Where to begin. The Cubs’ offense has been broken for years. 2021 was no different. This led President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer to trade away almost every valuable piece on the team. Unfortunately, viable, long-term replacements are years away. There were some bright spots in the last 2 months of the regular season. Patrick Wisdom set the Cubs’ rookie record for most home runs in a season with 28. He also struck out 153 times. Frank Schwindel burst onto the scene by hitting .342 in 222 plate appearances. Unfortunately, he’s also about to be 30 years old. It’s difficult to say whether either of them can replicate their production.
The pitching was even worse. After trading away Yu Darvish prior to the season, releasing Jake Arrietta mid-season after an abysmal few months, and receiving below-average years from Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies, the pitching staff struggled to say the least. The Cubs need to find power pitchers that can round out their starting rotation and bullpen. That was the key piece missing in 2021 and they paid the price. The Chicago Cubs offseason will undoubtedly be spent on fixing some of these issues.
What to Improve in 2022?
The Cubs have numerous areas to improve on in 2022. Pitching, defense, and contact hitters. From within, Nick Madrigal looks to fill that part of a high-motor, contact hitter. As a whole, the team was one-dimensional in both hitting and pitching. They need to change that. Find pieces that complement each other. No team can win with a bunch of soft-throwing pitchers or high-strikeout hitters. The Chicago Cubs offseason must focus on creating a more well-rounded team.
One of the biggest challenges the Cubs have faced in recent memory is their inability to develop homegrown pitching. They took a step in the right direction by naming Carter Hawkins their new GM. He comes from the Cleveland Indians, an organization known for developing top-tier pitching talent.
In 2021, the Cubs finally saw glimpses of their pitching development process panning out. Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, and Keegan Thompson all flashed their abilities to dominate hitters. Unfortunately, none were consistent enough to have their names penciled into the 2022 starting rotation.
Besides Kyle Hendricks, and perhaps Alec Mills, the Cubs have no one else for their rotation. The Cubs could look to sign Marcus Stroman–he’s spoken publicly about his interest–, Noah Syndergaard or even Jon Gray. All are major improvements and have a history of success. Syndergaard and Gray could look for one-year deals to prove themselves.
With the Cubs in a state of flux, this is the best-case scenario for the offseason. Find power pitchers to sign on one-year deals. If the team competes and performs well, try to lock them up long-term. If not, flip them at the trade deadline for prospects.
The Cubs have numerous question marks around the diamond. Nico Hoerner missed significant time. Can they count on him to play 140 games at shortstop–or even 140 games total? How will Nick Madrigal look after missing all of 2021 due to injury? Who plays the corner infield spots? Do they trade Willson Contreras or sign him long-term? Frankly, the only thing we know for certain is that Jason Heyward will continue to man right field until his contract ends after the 2023 season.
The 2021 free-agent class is loaded with shortstops. Unfortunately for the Cubs, all are either looking for big money or to play on a contender or both. As much as fans would love for some of the core to return, that is a long shot. While one or two of those pieces would fit well as cornerstones, it’s highly doubtful any are in play.
With the free-agent market, the Cubs will set their sights on second and third-tiered players. A recent example is the Joc Pederson signing. A good fit would be Chris Taylor of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He can slide into the super-utility role, just Ben Zobrist did.
Much like possible free-agent pitchers, the Cubs will seek to sign high upside players who are willing to play on a one or two-year deal. At this point, it is too early to tell when the Cubs will be competitive again. There’s no sense in signing Carlos Correa or Corey Seager, only to waste their prime trying to figure out how to win. Relying too heavily on free agent talent to fix holes that should come from within is how they got into this mess.
Chicago Cubs Offseason Priority
Their biggest offseason priority is finding talent with value. They have the money to spend. But, Jed Hoyer is on record as saying they plan to “spend money intelligently.” This is not the offseason to lock up several players long-term. This is the offseason to find pieces that can help the team win in 2022, but not force them to relinquish the financial flexibility they now have.
If those pieces pay off, the team can say they competed in 2022 as promised and determine how those pieces figure into the plan for 2023. No matter what, the Cubs must focus on building and developing their next core. This means not signing players with qualifying offers attached. It also means letting close to MLB-ready talent move up from the higher levels in the minors. They can afford to have patience, but they cannot afford to head into the next 2 offseasons without having some semblance of who fits into their future plans.
Chicago Cubs Offseason Outlook
For the first time in years, the Cubs have financial flexibility. The flip side is they have a lot of spots to fill. 2022 is more of a bridge year than it is the first season of their next contention window. However, the moves they make this offseason can help set them up for future success. That can be finding value signings that parlay into long-term deals in the future. Or, it could look more like this year, where they traded away significant pieces.
There is not much left to tear down. The team has the resources to set themselves up nicely for continuous contention starting in 2023. This offseason has the potential to yield fruitful additions. But, don’t get discouraged when the highlight of the offseason is signing a power pitcher to a one-year deal. Splashy moves are not in the cards. Smart moves, however, are.
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Patrick Wisdom, Frank Schwindel, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Zach Davies, Nick Madrigal, Adbert Alzolay, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, Alec Mills, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, Jon Gray, Nico Hoerner, Willson Contreras, Jason Heyward, Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager