The Cubs are getting ready to play ball and take on St. Louis and Milwaukee for first place in the NL Central. The three teams have more time to enhance their rosters before the start of the 2023 season, but as it stands now the Cardinals are less likely to have an easy jog to the division title. And that’s true even after their signing of free-agent catcher Willson Contreras.
The Contreras move strengthened the weakest position on the team and made the Cardinals better. But so far the front office hasn’t followed up on the Contreras contract by boosting other areas of the roster. The careful Cardinals are calibrating – as usual – to do just enough to win the division rather than raise a team that can go toe-to-toe with the more powerful teams in the National League.
The Cards’ abysmal 1-9 record in their last 10 postseason games hasn’t jarred management into the new reality. But perhaps Bill DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak know best; their deliberate, disciplined “Tortoise and the Hare” strategy has been effective for a long time in terms of the Cards’ consistency in qualifying for the postseason. And you can’t win the World Series without making the playoffs.
That said … while it’s true that moves can be made now or at the trade deadline, I thought we’d see more urgency from ownership-management so far this offseason. If the plan is to go big and bold by trading from their prospect capital at the trade deadline, I’ll be happy to give the thumbs up if it happens.
Perhaps the NL Central will be more challenging for the Cardinals in 2023, and that could prove beneficial. Maybe their competitiveness would be sharpened by having to battle their way into the postseason instead of waltzing into the tournament. The Cardinals weren’t ready for the 2022 wild-card series, and it showed with a quickie and embarrassing two-game elimination.
So much for finishing seven games ahead of the Brewers and 19 games above the Cubs in 2022. Where did it get the Cardinals, other than a chance to play two more games?
Their rivals are stirring in advance of 2023.
Earlier this offseason the Brewers flipped second baseman Kolten Wong to Seattle to bet on a strong comeback from left fielder (or DH) Jesse Winker, who was awful for the Mariners last season. The Crew is gambling on Winker’s past success in the NL Central while banging home runs and doubles for Cincinnati.
The Brewers got the best of a three-way trade that included Oakland and Atlanta – with young All-Star hitter William Contreras landing in Milwaukee for a modest return. By helping to facilitate the trade, the Brewers were rewarded with Contreras, a catcher-DH who clubbed 20 homers with a .506 slugging percentage for the Braves last season at age 24. As a bonus, the Brewers received pitching depth in the transaction. But the Brewers could also disengage by trading one of their top two starters, Corbin Burnes or Brandon Woodruff. We’ll see.
Up north, the Cubs are reactivated.
After holding payroll down and taking a break from competing, the Cubs are getting back in the game, spending money and adding talent that will make them a more viable contender in the NL Central.
Over the weekend the Cubs made a deal with the last of the top four coveted shortstops still available on the free-agent market, signing Dansby Swanson to a seven-year contract that will pay $177 million. After seeing Carlos Correa, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts signed to massive deals by other NL contenders, fuming Cubs fans finally had a wish fulfilled by Swanson’s addition.
Before this move, the Cubs had warmed up with three solid free-agent signings: starting pitcher Jameson Taillon, four years and $68 million; center fielder Cody Bellinger, one year at $17.5 million, and setup reliever Brad Boxberger, one year for $2.8 million.
Finally the Cubs changed the subject. Cubs fans were howling after a sequence of events that shortened the afterglow of the 2016 World Series triumph:
— In a blatant salary dump the Cubs traded starting pitcher Yu Darvish, and non-tendered slugger Kyle Schwarber.
— The Cubs turned away from extending the contracts of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras.
— The Cubs have failed to win a postseason round since defeating Washington in the 2017 NLDS.
— There’s been a significant slashing of the payroll. In 2019 the Cubs had a 40-man competitive balance payroll of $237.2 million. By the 2022 season, their 40-man CB payroll was down to $174.8 million.
— Chicago’s talent-investment level dropped at a time when the Cubs were spending $740 million on a multiple-phase redevelopment of the Wrigleyville area to generate new revenue streams for ownership.
— The Cubs have missed the postseason in three of the last four years, getting into the playoffs only in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Since winning the World Series in ‘16, the Cubs are 4-9 in the postseason and have lost six of their last seven playoff games.
— Chicago ended last season with two-season winning percentage of .448, tied for 20th in the majors over 2021 and 2022.
The Cubs had to do something; doing nothing was no longer a realistic option. Fortunately for the Cubs front office, they made the play for Swanson, a move that actually made sense and should improve the team.
Swinging and missing on all four free-agent shortstop candidates would have made for a very unhappy and unruly “Cubs Convention” next month, with fans having a chance to step to the microphone during question-answer sessions to berate owner Tom Ricketts and high-ranking members of the business and baseball operations departments. Swanson’s arrival will help calm the setting and make the fan-fair mood more festive.
After a good run in Atlanta, Swanson comes to Chicago as an All-Star shortstop with a World Series ring and Gold Glove award. He’s coming off his best big-league season, having blasted 25 homers and driven in 96. He’s an excellent all-around baserunner and stole 18 bases in 2022. Swanson has the third-highest number of home runs (52) among MLB shortstops over the past two seasons.
Based on Statcast’s metric Outs Above Average, Swanson was the second-best defensive player in MLB at +21 OAA in ‘22. And with the plus defender Nico Hoerner moving from shortstop to second base, the Cubs can thrive with their middle-infield defense minus the shift.
Swanson is a gamer who loves to play, having ranked second in the majors for most games (322) over the last two seasons.
Questions? Sure. Swanson’s 2022 defensive performance may have been somewhat of an outlier; he was a more realistic +2 OAA in 2021. And Fielding Bible had him worse than that, rating him 7 runs below average defensively in 2021.
Swanson has a 26% strikeout rate over the last three seasons; that’s acceptable as long as he’s hitting for ample power.
His home-road splits warrant scrutiny. Over the past three seasons, Swanson batted .287 in Atlanta and .244 on the road, slugged .499 in Atlanta and .405 on the road, had an onbase percentage 48 points higher at home compared to the road, and had a .848 OPS in Atlanta and a .706 OPS away from home.
We can look for real or potential weaknesses but here’s the bottom line: Swanson had the second highest WAR (6.4 fWAR) among full-time MLB shortstops in 2022, just behind the Mets’ Francisco Lindor (6.8). And he’s fifth among MLB shortstops in fWAR (9.7) over the past two seasons. If Swanson can average 4+ WAR over the next several seasons, he’ll pay off.
Next? The Cubs need a No. 2 catcher to share the job with Yan Gomes. They’re also undecided on what to do at third base. (Stay with the young Christoper Morel?) The rotation has been solidified with the addition of Taillon and (reportedly) the return of lefty Drew Smyly.
If as expected Smyly and the Cubs finalize their negotiations, the 2023 rotation will look like this: Marcus Stroman, Taillon, Kyle Hendricks (if healthy), Justin Steele, and Smyly — with Hayden Wesneski and Adrian Sampson at the ready to jump in. There isn’t much strikeout wallop there, and that’s why it was important for the Cubs to strengthen their infield defense. Their outfield — Bellinger in center, Ian Happ (left) and Seiya Suzuki (right) — has plenty of defensive skill.
The Cardinals are still the best team in the division — the proverbial team to beat — but that’s because they have the two best players in the division in league MVP Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, who finished No. 3 in the MVP voting. The front office added Willson Contreras to their big two, and that was a swell start to the offseason. We don’t know if there will be an impactful finish to the offseason.
Here’s an interesting opinion on the NL from Keith Law of The Athletic:
“I’m probably the wrong person to listen to on this topic (or some other topics), but I think the Cubs could be dark-horse contenders for the division in 2023,” Law wrote. “They’re probably too far back of the wild card, given the way the Phillies, Giants and Padres have all made big pushes this winter, but the NL Central doesn’t have a dominant team at the top.”
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.