3 questions for the Cubs entering 2023

December 24th, 2022

CHICAGO -- The Cubs spent much of the last two years keeping an eye on the future as the franchise underwent a dramatic roster overhaul. This offseason, the front office has stepped up spending as it tries to construct a competitive club, while the kids keep climbing up the farm system.

As the calendar flips to 2023, this is a good time to ponder three questions about the season ahead for the North Siders.

1. How good can the Cubs' defense be up the middle?

The additions of shortstop Dansby Swanson and center fielder Cody Bellinger will have a ripple effect on the Cubs' defensive alignment, and the result could make Chicago one of the strongest teams up the middle next season.

Swanson's arrival pushes Nico Hoerner to second base, following a standout season as the everyday shortstop. In fact, only Swanson (21) had more outs above average than Hoerner (13) among shortstops in 2022. Going back to '19, when Hoerner broke into the Majors, Hoerner has 36 OAA across multiple infield spots, while Swanson has 35 OAA.

The National League Gold Glove Award at shortstop rightly went to Swanson last year. In 2020, Hoerner was a finalist for the award for his work at second base. Chicago posted -4 defensive runs saved overall at second in '22, so Hoerner will undoubtedly provide a boost.

Having two shortstop-capable infielders up the middle will be especially important in '23, given the restrictions on shifts that are coming to MLB.

"Taking away the shift, the more athletic, more dynamic players you can get, the better that's going to help,” Cubs manager David Ross said at the Winter Meetings. “I think it helps your pitching staff."

Center field is a position where the Cubs combined for an MLB-low -19 DRS in 2022. Bellinger had zero DRS in center last year, but he has 14 DRS in his career at the spot and won a Gold Glove in '19. He will be an improvement.

When Ross was a part of the 2016 Cubs, who won the World Series, he had a great view behind the plate of one of the great defensive groups in team history. Now as manager, one of his goals is to feature a club that boasts a strong recipe of pitching and defense.

2. Which prospects have the best shot of impacting the team?

At the end of the Winter Meetings, as the Cubs still had multiple areas of clear need up and down the roster, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer offered an assessment of the team's situation.

"We have a bunch of holes," Hoyer said. "That's one of the challenges we have. Until our farm system really starts producing, which I think it will be in the next couple of years ... you have to fill more holes in free agency."

Some of the Cubs' high-profile prospects like Pete Crow-Armstrong (MLB Pipeline's No. 1 Cubs prospect), Kevin Alcantara (No. 3), Cade Horton (No. 4) and Owen Caissie (No. 10), among others, may not break into the big leagues until at least 2024.

In the meantime, two names from the Cubs' Top 30 list to really keep an eye on this spring will be first baseman Matt Mervis (No. 21) and right-hander Hayden Wesneski (No. 12).

There are at-bats up for grabs at first, and Mervis is coming off a breakout showing across High-A, Double-A and Triple-A this past season (36 homers, 119 RBIs and a .984 OPS). Chicago acquired Wesneski at the Trade Deadline last summer, and he spun a 2.18 ERA in a six-outing audition in '22. He could compete for a rotation job.

The group to watch closely as the season progresses includes outfielder Brennen Davis (No. 2), lefty Jordan Wicks (No. 5), righty Ben Brown (No. 7), righty Caleb Kilian (No. 14), catcher Miguel Amaya (No. 16) and righty Ryan Jensen (No. 28).

3. Do the Cubs have a realistic shot at the postseason?

The Cubs added Swanson (seven years) and Jameson Taillon (four years) on multiyear contracts -- a year after spending big on free agents Seiya Suzuki (five years) and Marcus Stroman (three years). Chicago is certainly seeking to emerge from this trying rebuilding period.

No, the Cubs’ roster hardly looks primed for World Series contention, but the additions should push the club closer to the pack of Wild Card hopefuls. And given the state of the NL Central, if things fall just right, maybe Chicago can pull into the division conversation.

There are still a lot of ifs, question marks and scenarios that need to wind up in the best-case category for that to happen. This is a team that will have a lot of work left to do after stripping down its last core group to create a new pipeline of up-and-coming talent.