Cubs have new look, same mission in '22
MESA, Ariz. -- There is a lot of talk around the Cubs about striking that balance between contending now and building for the future. Manager David Ross has a more direct take on his goal for the coming campaign.
"Winning. Making the playoffs. Getting to the World Series," Ross said at the start of Spring Training. "We're never going to stop working towards that. That's what we've established here. That's the expectations that I come with. Whether the outside people feel like we're talented enough or not, we're going to work to try to prepare to win the World Series."
The bulk of the core of the 2016 World Series club has been dismantled, while a pile of prospects was reeled in as president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer works to construct "the next great Cubs team." But there have been offseason moves -- signing Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki among them -- that support Hoyer's stated plan of fielding a competitive club in 2022.
It will be an uphill climb in the National League Central for a Cubs team that lost 91 games in '21, but Ross has set the expectation. With that in mind, here is a glance at the North Siders' 2022 outlook:
What needs to go right?
There are a plethora of items that would fall into this category for the Cubs. Let's quickly break it down in three sections:
• Pitching: Above all else, the Cubs need the rotation (5.27 ERA in 2021) to perform much better with Kyle Hendricks and Stroman leading the way. Behind them, youngsters like Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson need to take a step forward. In the bullpen, there is ample opportunity for a wide range of arms to step up as reliable setup or closing options.
• Offense: Chicago needs last year's breakout second-half showings from the likes of Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom to not be a fluke. The Cubs need comebacks from names like Jason Heyward and Clint Frazier. The club needs newcomer Suzuki to show he can make a quick adjustment to MLB pitching. And the high-contact bats of Nick Madrigal and Nico Hoerner need to help what has been a whiff-happy lineup.
• Defense: It was only two seasons ago that the Cubs took home the National League's Team Gold Glove Award. But names like Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo are no longer anchoring the infield. Positioning will be key as Hoerner and Madrigal take over as the new middle-infield tandem. A five-time Gold Glover in right, Heyward is moving to center for Suzuki. The Cubs need that decision to pay off.
Great unknown: Jason Heyward
This will be a critical year for Heyward, who is still an important figure inside the Cubs' clubhouse. He has already shown leadership this spring with his move to center, but the veteran's on-field production needs to improve in '22. That is especially true given how the front office is keeping an eye firmly on the future.
Heyward, 32, enjoyed a strong showing in the abbreviated 2020 season (129 OPS+ in 50 games), but struggled last season (68 OPS+ in 104 games). He is set to earn $22 million in each of the '22-23 campaigns. Heyward's performance to start this season will undoubtedly be under the microscope, especially with center fielder Brennen Davis, the Cubs' top prospect, waiting in the wings.
The team's MVP will be: Willson Contreras
There is risk in picking Contreras here, but there is also a lot of motivation in play for the Cubs' two-time All-Star catcher. Contreras is in his final year of contractual control, making him a prime trade candidate (like Báez, Rizzo and Kris Bryant before him). Contreras could hit free agency, or convince the Cubs to reopen extension talks. Either way, expect the catcher to play with an edge (more than usual, that is) in the coming months.
That is why it also makes sense to believe Contreras could wind up being the Cubs' MVP in '22. He is becoming a better all-around catcher and his offensive numbers could get a boost with the designated hitter helping to keep his legs fresh and his bat in the lineup. A healthy and productive Contreras would help a Cubs team trying to be competitive now, or perhaps net a package of impact prospects with the future in mind.
The team's Cy Young will be: Marcus Stroman
Hendricks is the unquestioned leader of the Cubs' rotation, but he is coming off a tough season (career-high 4.77 ERA). During Spring Training, even Hendricks said baseball is often centered around the question: "What have you done for me lately?" With that in mind, Stroman seems like the logical choice for this section.
The 30-year-old Stroman signed a three-year, $71 million deal with the Cubs over the offseason. He is coming off a '21 showing that included a 3.02 ERA with 158 strikeouts against 44 walks in 179 innings with the Mets. So far this spring, Stroman has said all the right things, won over his new teammates and seems to have formed a solid rapport with the Cubs' catching corps of Contreras and Yan Gomes.
Bold prediction: Seiya Suzuki wins NL Rookie of the Year
There will surely be an adjustment period for the 27-year-old Suzuki, as he not only acclimates to the United States, but gets accustomed to MLB deliveries, velocity and pitch movement. There have been glimpses of Suzuki's potential in the spring, but it is also clear there will be a learning curve involved for the Japanese slugger.
For Suzuki to climb into that NL Rookie of the Year conversation, the adjustment will need to be swift. There have been comparisons to when Hideki Matsui joined the Yankees as a 28-year-old in 2003. That year, Matsui had a .698 OPS in his first 60 games in the Majors. Then, he took off, hitting .307/.379/.468 the rest of the way that season.