Cubs News

The Cubs’ path to success in 2023 is clear

1 year agoTony Andracki

The Cubs have made their plan for success in 2023 clear and it all hinges on two words:

Run prevention.

Or put another way: Pitching and defense.

The Cubs’ moves this winter have all fallen in line with that agenda, as the team has greatly improved its run prevention unit since the 2022 regular season ended.

First, on the defensive side: Jed Hoyer’s front office has added the reigning National League Gold Glove winner at shortstop, the infield’s most important position. Dansby Swanson’s arrival also improves the defense at another position as it moves Nico Hoerner to second base, where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2020.

The Cubs now have arguably the best defensive middle infield in the game, which is even more important in 2023 with the new rules banning shifting. Swanson and Hoerner both have excellent range and will help turn plenty of ground balls into outs for the Cubs’ pitching staff.

“The best teams I’ve been on played elite defense,” David Ross said. “I think that is something that you can bring to a team every single day. Up the middle is obviously important but it’s everywhere. Taking away the shift, the more athletic, more dynamic players you can get, the better that’s gonna help. It helps your pitching staff. We don’t talk enough about how the pitching and defense go together.

“A lot of our success in the second half was solely on how we pitched and played defense in a lot of areas. And the pitching definitely carried us through a lot of those really good series and we were able to play some clean baseball. Not beating yourself, pitching and catching and doing things fundamentally sound you can bring every single day. I think hitting is extremely hard; it can be very streaky and comes and goes.”

Then there’s the Cody Bellinger signing. The 27-year-old has played first base and right field (where he won a Gold Glove in 2019) in his career but has settled into center field in recent seasons. He has rated as a good defender in the outfield’s most valuable spot and will be flanked by Ian Happ (2022 Gold Glove winner) and Seiya Suzuki, who should be more comfortable manning right field at Wrigley in his second season.

Continuing along the path to strengthen the spine of the defense up the middle, the Cubs also added Tucker Barnhart to the catching mix. The backstop took home the Gold Glove Award in 2017 and 2020.

Barnhart’s defensive numbers last season took a bit of a step back last season but he admitted it was a rough year all around.

“For me, I hit rock bottom in terms of my performance, at least I felt, and I took that into the offseason as motivation,” Barnhart said. “Everybody is gonna say that. I know that and it’s cliché. But I’ve enjoyed my work more this offseason in looking forward to bouncing back.”

Like Swanson, Barnhart’s presence has a serious trickledown effect on the rest of the roster. He can pair with Yan Gomes to form a dynamic duo behind the plate in game-calling, framing and working with the pitching staff.

Speaking of the pitching staff, the Cubs didn’t rest on their late-season success. They sported the 5th-best ERA (3.30) in baseball after the All-Star Game and bring back almost that entire unit. Wade Miley — who has reportedly signed with the Brewers — is the only pitcher of note who left Chicago, as the team re-signed Drew Smyly to a 2-year deal and also added veteran reliever Brad Boxberger on a 1-year pact.

The Cubs’ biggest pitching addition this winter was a 4-year, $68 million deal with Jameson Taillon. The former No. 2 overall pick and top prospect has overcome injuries and cancer to turn in a solid MLB career but he’s only 31 and he and the Cubs believe he still has some untapped potential.

Then there’s the true wild card of the 2023 pitching staff: Kyle Hendricks. “The Professor” missed the entire second half of the season with a shoulder injury and he was shut down in an effort to spend an entire offseason returning to health. If he can stay on the mound, Hendricks can elevate the pitching staff to another level alongside Taillon, Marcus Stroman and others.

The Cubs are also hoping for improved health from a trio of important young arms. Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson each missed more than a month in the second half and Adbert Alzolay was limited to just 6 appearances due to a lat injury.

It’s unrealistic to think all of the Cubs’ pitchers to remain fully healthy all season but Hoyer and Carter Hawkins have built up some real depth in the rotation and those who don’t immediately earn roles as starters (Thompson, Alzolay, Adrian Sampson, Hayden Wesneski, etc.) could still serve as multi-inning weapons out of the bullpen.

For good measure on the defensive side, the Cubs reportedly signed veteran first baseman Eric Hosmer to a deal last week. He took home 4 Gold Gloves from 2013-17 and should bring a stabilizing presence to the infield.

It’s clear the Cubs’ goal this winter was to build up the pitching and defense and now they’re hoping it translates to wins.

“The way that the team is being constructed, I think we’re going to hit but it’s centered around pitching and defense,” Barnhart said. “I think it sustains winning when the ebbs and the flows of the the offensive side of baseball kind of happen during the season. If you can prevent runs, you’re going to be in a lot of ballgames.

“In baseball, as in any other sport, one bounce one way or another can win or lose you a game. If you’re in games consistently because you’re pitching and you’re playing good defense, I think anything can happen. So, the way that we talked was very positively about moving towards winning, and that was one of the things that drew me to Chicago was to be playing meaningful baseball.”

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