Cubs Chronicles I: Breaking Camp

Last week I concluded an eighteen-season stint as a GM in my “other” OOTP league, and I’m excited to focus more on my new IRL job and my first love, MLB Pro. To celebrate, I thought I’d give our league blog a little love. Scott and the Anonymous GM did a fantastic job previewing the 2023 Cubs on their recent podcast but I’d like to do another quick run-down now that Spring Training is nearly over. Enjoy!

There weren’t too many position battles this Spring Training for the Chicago Cubs. The 26 man roster was widely set after last November’s cross-town trade that sent RP Orlando Garcia, CF Byron Buxton, and 3B Billy Hamilton to the North Side in exchange for a pool of prospects: SP Kyle Brosnan, SP Noah Murdock, SP Andre Pallante, and SS Tim McMahon. In fact, the Cubs did not sign any free agents all winter, a far cry from the days of eight and nine figure signings of the last few years.

With roster decisions few and far between, Spring Training was about two things: shaking off the rust, and staying healthy. Chicago succeeded in both regards as their few injury scares turned out to be day-to-day opportunities for rest and relaxation as I write this heading into the final three exhibition games. Now that the dust is settled, just who is breaking camp and heading to Wrigley Field? Here’s a quick look at your 2023 Opening Day Chicago Cubs.

The Starting Infield

1B Yordan Alvarez was one of the Cubs’ best players in 2022, if not the best. Where many of their sophomore players took a step back, Yordan took a step forward. He cut his strikeouts down from 223 to 178 (20% decrease) and still brought his 35 homers and 90ish RBIs to the table. The 25 year old is going to be a big part of the Cubs’ success this summer.

Speaking of sophomore struggles, 2B Gavin Lux is one who the Cubs are hoping to turn it around as a junior. Not only did his offense take a hit last year, but so did his defense (-2.9 ZR and .969 EFF). His platoon splits are wonky too, as he struggled more against lefties despite scouting reports saying he should be making more contact off the league’s southpaws. Lux will bat towards the bottom of the order this season.

It’s a bit surprising to think of SS Tomas Arteaga as one of the veterans of the infield, but he’s been in the league since breaking in as a 23 year old in 2018. Arteaga famously won out as the regular contributor of the Arteaga–Rafael Luna platoon last season. Luna was traded to the Detroit Tigers for SP Landon Leach, who has been optioned to AAA Iowa, awaiting his turn to reinforce the squad.

3B Jake Burger will man the hot corner. Unlike Lux, Burger has slowly been getting better with more big league experience. The 2017 2nd rounder is one of GM Jabs’ longest tenured prospects. Last season, he posted an above average OPS+, notched 2.4 WAR, and slugged 21 bombs. The Cubs are expecting Yordan to anchor the lineup – but if Burger can turn into the star they think he is, the rest of the division will be put on notice.

2023 will be C Jose Felix‘s 11th behind the dish for Jabs’ North Siders. At 34 years old, Felix’s defense and intangibles are more important than ever. It will be interesting to see how many more years he plays. The Cubs will be one of two things this season: a contender for the Wild Card, or a seller at the trade deadline. How will that impact the rest of Felix’s career? He has two $1.5M vesting options in ’24 and ’25 requiring 100 games played, a mark he’s only missed once since his sophomore season.

The Starting Outfield

RF Ed Harris is just that for the first time in his career: a true right fielder. The Cubs aren’t missing with him any longer, trying to fit him into center field when his tools and profile clearly scream “corner infielder”. Harris celebrated his 30th birthday a few weeks back and the Cubs are ready to see him go in the second half of his career. Injuries hampered his playing time for the first time in 2022, but he’s been fully healthy in Spring Training and ready to bring his .330s exhibition batting average to the regular season.

Part of Ed Harris’ transition to “true” right field will be aided by newcomer CF Byron Buxton, whose job is to do two things: play great center field defense, and hit above the Mendoza line. Some pundits have criticized the move, saying Buxton is a below average player, but the Cubs are hoping the combination of Harris and Buxton turns into a productive pair on both sides of the ball.

As Harris goes to right field, LF Earl James makes the transition back to left field. James has been a consistently above-average player for Chicago, and last year he started an extra 33 games as a full-time player. He’s looking at his first real arbitration year next year and can finally cross the $1M earning threshold with a solid season.

Formally an outfielder, the Cubs will benefit greatly from sliding DH Eloy Jimenez into the designated hitter role. The 26 year old brings true power – 70 on the 20-80 scale, and 51 over the last two seasons. Now that he doesn’t have to pretend to be an outfielder and can focus just on the hitting side of the game, the Cubs are expecting a big net improvement.

The Starting Rotation

It starts with the $29 million dollar man: SP Ryan Copeland will be getting the ball on Opening Day. He’s got two motivations this year. First and foremost, he wants to see his Chicago Cubs in the playoff conversation for the first time since he signed his big contract back in the 2020-2021 offseason. Secondly, he’s a free agent after this season, he’ll be 35 and looking for as much financial security as he can get before riding into the baseball sunset. As Copeland goes, so go the Cubs.

Signed prior to 2019, SP Madison Bumgarner‘s tenure has thus far been a disappointment on the North Side. 87 games, 40 losses, a 4.57 ERA, 86 ERA+, and 7.9 WAR is not quite what Chicago had in mind when they gave the then-28 year old nearly $160 million. MadBum is barely touching 91mph these days. He’s not a lock to reach the sixth inning. He’s the biggest wild card of the rotation for sure.

Youngster SP Julio Urias will likely pick up much of MadBum’s slack. The third lefty in the rotation, he posted great numbers in 2022 after a positive 8-start stint with the team in 2021. Urias comes with an impressive fastball, curveball, slider, changeup mix, and all pitches are above-average. He’s been impressing in Spring Training thus far, highlighted by a 5K, 1H performance against the South Siders on March 22nd.

Not much to say about SP Don Porter these days – he’s a solid number four, and will do his job of eating innings throughout the season. The former Rule 5 Draft pick has accumulated 36 wins and a perfect 4.00 ERA since 2018.

Rounding out the back half of the rotation, SP Bill Hauck is the latest in a long line of examples in the “scouting report vs. statistics” debate. The Cubs have long come on the scouting report side of the argument, but the success of Bill Hauck and Chicago’s great 2023 season could lead to a change in mindset at the top. This offseason the Cubs parted ways with longtime scout Tommy Tanous, instead employing the likes of Wade Davis. Hauck has a dominating changeup and five decent starts since coming over via the waiver wire last August. It’s a gamble, but you can squint and see a multiverse in which Hauck pitches important innings for Chicago this year.

The Bullpen

CL Alex Ramirez was overused in 2022. He appeared in a league-high 78 games out of the “Stopper” role for Chicago, seeing his ERA double (and then some) from 2.09 in 2021 to 4.48 in 2022. Still, the Cubs think this is a blip on the radar, and not the new norm. They gave the 33 year old nearly $10 million in arbitration over the winter and will be treating him exclusively as a clean ninth-inning guy out of the gate.

The new stopper is ST Jhoan Duran, a 25 year old righty. Duran kept the bullpen from completely collapsing last season thanks to his 2.61 ERA, 148 ERA+, and 11 K/9 in 40 games. He’s a young dominating arm and could see some saves if the Cubs decide to pivot to a committee approach in May.

Big offseason acquisition SU Orlando Garcia will try his hand pitching at Wrigley Field this year. He’s saved 63 games for three different teams in the past two season but is stepping aside for the incumbent Ramirez for the formal role. Perhaps this leads to a late-2000s Carlos Marmol/Kerry Wood situation, where the setup guy is pitching the key outs to make way for the elder closer.

The rest of the bullpen is compiled of the following: RP Jason Hatfield is enjoying a solid Spring with a sub-1.00 ERA, though he is coming back from injury. RP Bill Smith pitched well for the Cubs last season after the Detroit Tigers foolishly cast him (and his 1.98 AAA ERA) aside and hopes to repeat his performance in 2023. Like Hauck, RP Anthony Klumpp is another pitching project on the strength on the strength of a great scouting report after being acquired at the 2021 Trade Deadline in a Pablo Sandoval contract dump. The main reliable lefty of the group is RP Jose Castro, although his role as a LOOGY will be slightly diminished with the changing rules in MLB. Finally, RP Lance Guy made the team as another middle relief option who can stretch out like your typical starter. The Cubs picked him up off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays last August.

The Bench

The Cubs are rocking a four-man bench to start 2023. The final piece of their sole offseason trade, INF Billy Hamilton will back up 2B, 3B, and SS, while hopefully putting his 80-grade speed to use in the late innings. He was a perfect 7-for-7 in SB attempts in the majors last year. OF Juan Perez will man a similar role patrolling all three outfield spots. He had some great early-season stats in 2023; we’ll see if any of those translate to this year. Behind Jose Felix is C Stryker Trahan. At 28 years old and coming off of a .161/.197/310 campaign, he’s got a lot to prove, but the Cubs are more worried about defense from their catcher(s) regardless. The final spot goes to LF/DH Tyler Hill. The Cubs believe Hill’s gap power will play well at Wrigley, though it will be tough to find playing time for him with pinch hitting for pitchers no longer being commonplace in the National League.

C Jose Aleman, P Kelly Koch, and P Ryan Rolison will be heading to the minors following Sunday’s Spring finale.

The Coaching Staff

The Cubs brought back every one of their coaches from the 2022 season. A make or break year for Chicago, manager John Farrell has only been signed through 2023. He’s got two rings to his name – one in the American League in 2012, and one in the Pioneer League in 2019. Farrell was at the helm the one and only time the Jabs Era Cubs made the playoffs, their 92 win season in 2015. He’s been back with the team for two years during his second stint. Will it end the way it started, with a trip to the playoffs? Time will tell.

Old fan favorite Derrek Lee is still the bench coach, a position he’s held since 2017 across multiple different managers. There has long been talk of Lee taking the captain’s chair one day, but it’s been seven years and he too is only signed through 2023.

Longtime Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher hasn’t seen his teams find the same success since coming over to the National League. He earned more than $20M with Milwaukee in 2019 (66 wins) and 2020 (73 wins), and hasn’t been able to avoid 90 losses since. Hitting coach Ryan Howard‘s reputation has been improving and at 43 years old he’s still fairly new to the coaching game.

Base coaches Reed Johnson (once special assistant / stand-in avatar for the General Manager during MLB Pro’s formative years) and Rick Renteria (whom Jabs totally thought was his old manager and IRL favorite Rich Renteria until about two weeks ago) will maintain their old positions at 1B and 3B, respectively.

Kyle Torgerson has been doing great as the Team’s Trainer and the Cubs hope the healthy streak continues. Although if I’ve suddenly jinxed myself by writing this article and I lost two players for significant time in the final days of Spring Training, my enthusiasm for this upcoming MLB / MLB Pro season is going to take a significant dive.

Anyway… there you have it! Thanks for reading. Until next time, this has been CUBS CHRONICLES.

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