Cubs News

23 for ’23: Which Cubs players could be primed for a breakout this season?

1 year agoTony Andracki and Andy Martinez

Between position battles, roster additions and new rules, there are plenty of questions surrounding the 2023 Cubs. We attempt to provide answers for 23 of the most intriguing questions heading into the season.

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs viewed 2022 as a transitional season, even after signing Seiya Suzuki and Marcus Stroman prior to the year. 

Jed Hoyer’s front office understood that the farm system was moving in the right direction and that everything had to break right for the team to contend for the division and make it into the playoffs in 2022.

They viewed the season instead as an opportunity to identify core pieces on the roster — both for the present and the future.

That’s exactly what happened up and down the roster. 

We saw Nico Hoerner stay healthy, flash a bit more power and prove he can play Gold Glove-caliber defense at shortstop. 

We saw Justin Steele earn a spot in the rotation in Spring Training and run with it, finishing his year on a very strong note before a back injury cost him the final few weeks.

Keegan Thompson had some ups and downs in the rotation but was dominant as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen.

We also saw Christopher Morel and Brandon Hughes debut on the same day in mid-May and emerge as long-term pieces for this franchise.

Scott Effross continued his breakout from late in 2021 and the Cubs turned that into Hayden Wesneski at the trade deadline. Wesneski himself found success for the team down the stretch.

So who will step up in 2023 for the Cubs? We took a few guesses:

RHP Hayden Wesneski

OK, OK, Wesneski kind of broke out in 2022 with his impressive big-league debut — 2.18 ERA, 33 strikeouts, 0.939 WHIP in 6 games (4 starts) late in the season. But 2023 could be to Wesneski what 2022 was to Steele — maybe even better. 

Wesneski entered camp in competition for the fifth starter role, but it seemed likely he would start the season at Triple-A and continue some development there before returning mid-season. But this spring, he’s taken his opportunity and ran with it. 

In 4 Spring Training starts, Wesneski has posted a 3.00 ERA and a 1.083 WHIP with 17 strikeouts in 12 innings. He threw 4 perfect innings against the Dodgers, too, on March 11. His stuff has looked solid — his slider and fastball are legit pitches and have gotten results, even if he’s hard on himself. 

“My fastball command’s getting better. My slider to me is getting better but it’s still not where I want it to be,” Wesneski said after his last outing. “But for the most part, can’t complain with throwing strikes.”

Wesneski will likely start the season as the Cubs’ fifth starter — David Ross has liked to break up his starters by handedness, going right-left-right to start the season last year (Kyle Hendricks, Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman) and could do something similar this year. But, by the middle of the season, there’s a chance Wesneski could be the team’s third starter — his stuff is that good. 

Most importantly, though, is the poise. 

Sometimes, when a young pitcher comes up to the majors, the toughest adjustment is knowing that their stuff plays. 

“There’s not one guy that necessarily comes to mind, but I think a lot of younger guys get to the big leagues and think that they have to pitch on the edges,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “That quite frankly is not the case. And I think a lot more times than not, it puts them in situations where they get in trouble.”

That’s not the case with Wesneski — and it’s why he could be a pivotal starter for the Cubs by the time the season ends. 

“I think the thing to me that stands out about Hayden is just the poise and work ethic and knowledge of what he does well already,” Ross said. “He’s very comfortable in any situation, knows what he does well, relies on his slider, knows how to pitch off that and doesn’t deviate from that. He understands how his body feels and works mechanically and is able to make slight adjustments, whether in game or in his 4 days off. 

“Very much a veteran presence about how he goes about his work as he’s new to this organization has really stood out. It just feels like he’s on a mission with everything he does.”

RHP Julian Merryweather

Not all breakouts have to be young players getting their first real opportunity in the big leagues.

The 31-year-old Merryweather has turned heads early this year for multiple reasons.

First, his stuff:

Secondly, how he came to this bullpen.

The Cubs entered the offseason with a serious roster crunch and they were judicious with who they acquired over the winter. 

Hoyer and Carter Hawkins want to get to a point where they are almost exclusively building out the team’s bullpen from within each year and the organization is close to that point with a plethora of young arms coming up through the system. 

So even after trading away four relievers last summer, the Cubs spent the winter mostly adding reliever depth via minor league signings. Brad Boxberger and Michael Fulmer were the two free agent signings to get big-league deals and then the Cubs also claimed Merryweather off waivers from the Blue Jays in January.

It’s easy to see why with the stuff Merryweather has displayed on the mound, but his MLB performance hasn’t matched to date. In parts of 3 seasons with the Blue Jays, Merryweather dealt with injuries and appeared in only 47 games, posting a 5.64 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in that span. 

Since joining the roster, he has worked with the Cubs pitching department to enhance his secondary pitches and to refine his mechanics in hopes of avoiding injury.

So far, that work has paid off as Merryweather has not allowed an earned run in 5.1 innings of work this spring and has struck out 8 batters.

“I think my word would probably be excited,” Ross said of Merryweather. “His reputation, even talking to other coaches and media members around the league, he’s always had the stuff and a good arm, but being able to stay healthy is really important. He’s done nothing but prove himself worthy of all the hype as he’s come in and he’s gonna have to continue to put the work in and stay healthy. 

“I think early on, the changeup [last week] really stood out. The velocity that he possesses and working on the secondary slider, the sweeping slider seems to be getting really comfortable with that. It’s a really intriguing, exciting arm that has a little bit of experience, but not the track record you like to see, but there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s been really electric every time he sets foot on the mound.”

If Merryweather stays healthy, he can be another high-leverage arm for Ross in the Cubs bullpen.

INF Edwin Ríos

Like Merryweather, Ríos isn’t exactly on the young side — he’ll turn 28 on April 21.

But he hasn’t been afforded much of an opportunity yet in the big leagues, tallying only 291 plate appearances over the last 4 seasons on a stacked Dodgers roster. 

He did flash his power during that time, smacking 20 homers, including 8 in only 83 plate appearances in 2020.

Here’s a good example of that power in action in what might be the Cubs’ most impressive home run of the spring so far:

Ríos’ minor league numbers are impressive — .291/.347/.534 (.882 OPS). He hit .304 in 88 games with Triple-A in 2018 and then crushed 31 homers with a .915 OPS in 104 games at the Triple-A level the following year.

The Dodgers let him walk over the winter and the Cubs brought Ríos in this spring on a big-league deal. He can play third base, first base and DH and provides a left-handed power stroke that fills a hole on the Cubs roster.

“I think Edwin’s been one of the more impressive guys in camp,” Ross said. “Looking at who he was coming into camp, the adjustments he made before the San Diego game over there and the at-bats he’s had since then has been really impressive. 

“Worked some walks, got into some deep counts, he’s hit for power, the outs he has made are really deep fly balls in deep parks. Been a lot of barrels, loud noises and working walks. Been impressed. Really good at-bats.”

It remains to be seen how the playing time is doled out, but there is certainly a chance for Ríos to take his opportunity and run with it this season.

23 for ’23 series

What will the Cubs’ new era at catcher look like?
What is the Cubs’ plan at third base?
Who steps up in the wake of the Seiya Suzuki injury?
What role will Christopher Morel have on the 2023 Cubs?
Who will win the Cubs’ 5th starter spot?
Where does Nick Madrigal fit on the roster?
Who will close for the Cubs?
What kind of impact will Dansby Swanson have in his first season in Chicago?
What is the plan for Matt Mervis?
Who are some under-the-radar players that could make the Opening Day roster?
What will Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer bring to this team?
Which young Cubs pitchers will take the next step this season?
What can we expect from Kyle Hendricks when he returns this season?
What does the Opening Day bullpen look like?
Will the Cubs’ pitching staff pick up where it left off?
What will the Opening Day lineup look like?
After career years with Cubs, what’s next for Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner?

Will Cody Bellinger return to his MVP-caliber form?
How will the Cubs balance development of young players with contending for NL Central crown?

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