In 2021 and 2022, the Cubs recorded their first back-to-back losing seasons in nearly a decade. From 2015 to 2020, they have made the playoffs at least in five out of six years. But one of the realities of the young players who helped achieve all this success is that they will eventually have to move on.
It started at the 2021 trade deadline, and with Willson Contreras moving via free agency this winter, the Cubs are essentially a brand new team from the team that won its first World Series in over a century.
Team president Jed Hoyer has been very careful since July not to call what he’s overseeing with the team a “rebuild,” but whatever the case, the Cubs seem to be emerging on the other side. Last winter they added Marcus Strowman and Seiya Suzuki, and so far this off-season, Jameson Tellon, Cody Bellinger and now Dansby Swanson.
Multiple reports point to Swanson joining the Cubs on a seven-year, $177 million deal, although the Cubs have yet to officially confirm any terms. He was one of four major shortstops in the market and the last to sign with a team.
Swanson is coming off of back-to-back successful seasons with the Braves. 760 OPS in 2021 and was a key part of Atlanta’s postseason run to that year’s World Series title. Against the Astros in the fall classic, Swanson hit two home runs, in Game Four and the deciding Game Six. Last season, Swanson played in all 162 games, collected 776 OPS and was an All-Star for the first time. Back in 2020, Swanson missed two matches aggregate.
Defensively, Swanson will undoubtedly make the Cubs better. He was good to nine defensive runs saved in 2022, and Swanson would take over at shortstop with Chicago, pushing Nico Horner to second base. For his part, Horner deserved the 10 defensive runs he saved last season. This duo would be a top-to-mid combo that’s hard to beat.
The Cubs will be better in 2023, and there’s no reason to doubt that. They still have holes to fill — catcher and first baseman, at least — but there’s light at the end of rebuilding or retooling the tunnel. Although the former Cores had great success, they really started to wane after the 2017 season. They went to the NLCS that year but haven’t won another playoff game since Game 4 of the Championship Series against the Dodgers. The Cubs lost the 2018 and 2020 wild card rounds and didn’t make the postseason at all in 2019. The current iteration of the Cubs may not be ready to make any postseason runs, but they’re much closer than they were a few weeks ago.
The most pressing question is whether Swanson tips the scales enough to make the Cubs competitive in the NL Central.
The primary hurdle in the division should be the Cardinals. It’s still too early in the offseason for the usual projection systems to run out of predictions for the 2023 season, but it’s safe to exclude the Buccaneers and Reds, and the brewers appear to be headed in the wrong direction.
That would leave the Cubs competing primarily with St. Louis. There, there is some hope, but not much. The Cardinals grabbed catcher Wilson Contreras off Friendly Confines, but their offense has a number of potential question marks. Namely, corner anchors Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. The first is coming from a great season (7.1 fWAR), but he’s 35 and has put in his best numbers since 2015. This likely won’t happen again. Arenado is younger — he’ll turn 32 in April — and he’s also scored a year in 2022. Last season’s fWAR (7.3) was a career high. It’s safe to plan for at least a slight dip from his career average numbers.
If there was another Achilles heel for the Cardinals, this could be their bet. Adam Wainwright returns for his 41-year-old season, but Jack Flaherty will need to recover from three seasons. However, the Cardinals still have Miles Mikulas and Jordan Montgomery as potential rotational leaders. They are not in much danger here. The truth is, the Cardinals are the easy favorites to win the division again, no matter what the Cubs did in this offseason.
The cubs are definitely in much better shape than they were just a few weeks ago. They will be better than the last two seasons. But there are still big gaps in the squad. The loss of Contreras means they will likely rely on Yan Gomez and BJ Higgins for catcher. There is still no full-time primary first officer on the roster. Patrick Wisdom has a lot of power, but he makes a lot of effort to be the only source of pop in the ranking.
The coming weeks will show if they keep adding or head into spring training in February as is. There’s room to spend more, but Swanson may have been the last significant signing. With their current roster, there is likely to be a more interesting season for the Cubs, but division contention may still be another year away.