Are Cubs ready to take the next step in '23?

March 27th, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- The one constant through the Cubs' rise to a World Series championship, along with the rebuilding periods that bookended that golden era for the franchise, has been .

This spring, Hendricks has watched how a group of other World Series winners -- names like , and  -- have entered the fold and mixed in with a layer of younger talent. After two trying years of transition from the last core, Hendricks likes what he sees in the 2023 cast.

"Everything goes in cycles," Hendricks said. "I'm just super excited for the path, where we're at right now in the process. And really, what allowed all that to happen, I think, is our young guys."

The Cubs are counting on the experience gained in the past two years from the in-house players, combined with the veteran experience injected into the roster in a flurry of offseason additions, guiding the club back into the postseason conversation.

"We've got a lot of winners, former winners, hardware, World Series champions," Cubs manager David Ross said. "We'll make our identity as the season goes on and what we're all about. But I like where we're at. I love that we're built on pitching and defense."

What needs to go right?
One of the reasons a handful of projection systems have the Cubs in the 78-win range is the simple fact that there are so many aspects of the roster that are challenging to predict. Chicago is counting on a group of comeback candidates and steps forward from a cast of younger players.

They need Bellinger to regain his early career form. The North Siders need veterans like Mancini and to find what went missing in the second half of 2022. Chicago needs to realize his star potential,  to build off last year's National League All-Star season and Swanson to live up to the face-of-the-franchise hype.

On the mound, the Cubs need arms like , and to blossom under the veteran leadership of , , and Hendricks. And Chicago is betting on and  anchoring the bullpen.

Great unknown
The Cubs made a calculated gamble when they jumped at the chance to sign Bellinger, who was non-tendered by the Dodgers over the winter. The center fielder burst onto the scene across 2017-19, posting a .928 OPS and picking up an NL Rookie of the Year trophy, a Gold Glove Award and a Most Valuable Player plaque along the way.

Over the past three seasons, Bellinger has hit .203 with a .648 OPS while battling through a variety of injury setbacks. If the center fielder can maintain a clean bill of health and return to some level of his early career form, that would be a major win for the Cubs.

Team MVP will be ...
The Cubs invested $177 million in Swanson over a seven-year contract, which was the second-largest free-agent deal in franchise history. Swanson's combination of defense (20 Outs Above Average in 2022), all-around offense (25 homers, 96 RBIs and 18 steals with a 115 OPS+), durability (162 games played) and reputation as a leader made him a fit for a Cubs team trying to move on from their recent rebuild.

So if the Cubs are going to reach the heights they hope to reach this season, they will need Swanson to play like the MVP of their roster. Chicago has assembled a roster based around run-prevention and athleticism, and no one embodies that more than Swanson.

Team Cy Young will be ...
The 31-year-old Taillon was brought in on a four-year, $68 million contract to be a workhorse for Chicago's veteran-led rotation. Armed with a new sweeper, the right-hander has a deep pitch arsenal capable of slicing through all quadrants of the strike zone. Taillon had a 3.91 ERA with 151 strikeouts and 32 walks in 177 1/3 innings in 2022 and could be poised to take a step forward this season.

Bold prediction
With apologies to Bellinger and , this year's bold call is that  will lead the Cubs in home runs. Over his limited MLB career, Ríos has launched homers at a rate of one per 13 at-bats. That is a prolific pace. With health and opportunity, there is a chance the corner infielder will thrive this year for the North Siders.