It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Cubs during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
We knew the teardown was going to happen, but I’m not sure that we all expected how thoroughly management would go after it. Within the span of about 48 hours, many of the names we as Cardinal fans had grown unwillingly familiar with were in different uniforms. However, is this really going to be a tank job or is there a plan in place? Let’s see what these Cub fans have to say!
|Josh Timmers||Bleed Cubbie Blue||JoshFTimmers|
|Evan Altman||Cubs Insider||DEvanAltman (podcast The Rant Live)|
|Neil Finnell||Chicago Cubs Online||TheCCO|
|Jacob Misener||Cubbies Crib|
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Chicago’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Josh: The Cubs accomplished a lot before the lockout and they seem to be continuing that now that the lockout is over. They made two great moves to improve their woeful starting pitching in 2021 by signing Marcus Stroman and claiming Wade Miley off waivers. Backup catcher was a huge problem last season and signing Yan Gomes as a free agent fixes that instantly. Unless they trade Willson Contreras, then backup catcher is a problem again. Grabbing outfielders Clint Frazier and Harold Ramirez are good, low-risk gambles with some upside if they work out. Nick Madrigal will make his Cubs’ debut and should provide needed offense at second base.
Since then, they’ve landed Japanese star Seiya Suzuki. You can never really be sure how a player’s skills are going to translate from NPB to MLB, but Suzuki has been the best player in that league since Shohei Ohtani left for the states. Obviously the front office feels he’s going to be a borderline star at worst, which may be wishful thinking, but who knows? Lots of people thought Ohtani would struggle to make the jump to MLB as well. What makes Suzuki interesting is his defense and his combination of power and his ability to make contact.
The Cubs didn’t make any moves that I hated, but obviously they still have problems to address. There’s the issue of Willson Contreras’ contract extension, and if they can’t sign him to a long-term deal then they have to trade him and then they need another catcher. (And they really need to sign Contreras to an extension. That’s what hasn’t happened yet.) Nico Hoerner really shouldn’t be the starting shortstop, so they signed Andrelton Simmons, who is still a very good glove but can’t hit anymore. The bullpen is really a mess right now, but they’ve signed several relievers with interesting arms on cheap deals and they’re probably just hoping that a couple of them can thrive in 2022. It’s the old let’s-see-who-sinks-and-who-swims strategy for building a bullpen.
Evan: The Cubs have had a good-but-not-great offseason by most standards, with enough moves to keep people interested while still not producing a roster that is ready to compete for a division title. The additions of Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki were both tremendous and could be the foundation for serious improvement, but there haven’t been enough impact players added to a core that was decimated at the trade deadline. Carlos Correa was the big wish all offseason and that obviously didn’t work out, but even glaring needs like a left-handed power hitter have gone completely unaddressed. Perhaps most disappointing is that Jed Hoyer very pointedly called out how the rotation wasn’t good enough to compete, saying the Cubs needed to get pitchers who throw hard and miss bats. To that end, they added Stroman, Wade Miley, and several other swingman types who sit in the low 90’s. It doesn’t appear as if they even attempted to sign any number of high-velo starters, which will remain inexplicable unless they swing a late trade.
Neil: Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins did pretty much what I was expecting this offseason, with two big exceptions. I really liked the addition of Marcus Stroman. Excellent pitcher that should fit in nicely in the rotation behind Kyle Hendricks and in front of Wade Miley. Three totally different pitchers at the top of David Ross’ rotation. Adding Yan Gomes was also a good move. With Willson Contreras’ future with the Cubs in question, Ross had to have a steady veteran behind the plate. Gomes gives him that. I also liked the addition of Clint Frazier. That could be very, very interesting this year. The biggest addition was Seiya Suzuki. The reports are awesome. The highlights are better. I like the comp to A.J. Pollock from his days in Arizona. If that is the type of player Suzuki ends up being, Hoyer and Hawkins made an excellent signing.
I would have preferred a reunion with Anthony Rizzo. Right now, the Cubs do not have a face of the franchise. Rizzo would have been the face along with a proven big leaguer that could have helped young players, like Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal. I was disappointed that the Cubs lost out on Carlos Correa. This was the offseason for Hoyer and Hawkins to grab a long-term solution at shortstop. I like Andrelton Simmons’ glove. He will help defensively for sure.
The lack of starting pitching is scary especially after Adbert Alzolay went down. While there are a lot of arms that could help in the bullpen, especially in the backend, losing Codi Heuer to Tommy John was a big hit. Heuer seems to be special. Losing a year-plus of him and his development is not good. And I simply cannot stand the signing of Jonathan Villar. The Cubs should have never signed him. Big, big mistake.
So, it might be accurate to say the Cubs had an expected, inconsistent offseason. Kind of like Major League Baseball.
Jacob: The front office is trying to thread the needle between focusing on the team’s long-term outlook and remaining semi-competitive in the interim. It’s a tough line to walk – but I think Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins did relatively well in their first offseason together. Obviously, the Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki signings were huge – and they added en masse in the bullpen – but I still would’ve liked to see one more major free agent signing (specifically, a run-producing left-handed bat). Yes, the Cubs spent a lot this winter – but there was room to do more and really give this team a chance to be firmly in the hunt in 2022 while also building for the future – and they opted to play it safe instead.
C70: So what are they doing? Are they tearing it down or trying to compete?
Josh: Both? For years, Cub fans made fun of former president Theo Epstein’s “parallel tracks” comment when he took over the team in 2011, but that appears to be what his disciple Jed Hoyer is trying to accomplish. The trades Hoyer made last summer were gut-wrenching, but he did really well in what the Cubs got back. But for the most part, the players Hoyer got are young, high-risk and high-ceiling guys. They very well could be the stars of the next Cubs’ World Series champion, but not anytime soon.
So in the meantime, Hoyer is trying to put a team on the field that maybe could compete for a playoff spot if everything goes right but in any case, probably won’t finish last. He’s also trying to get talented players on short term deals so that when those young kids are ready, he’ll have enough “payroll flexibility” to fill in the holes with whomever might be available then. The Cubs probably won’t be a serious World Series contender until at least 2025, but with 12 teams making the playoffs, they might be good enough to snag a Wild Card spot or two and keep the fans interested until the serious kids arrive.
So it’s like the Cubs traded in their expensive sports car for a sensible daily driver that will get the job done until they can save up for their next hot roadster. Does that make sense?
Evan: This might sound like a cop-out, but I think they’re hanging out in purgatory right now as they attempt to balance improvement and value while mitigating risk to the greatest degree possible. The division is incredibly top-heavy with Pittsburgh still not fielding a competitive roster and Cincinnati trading away anyone with value not named Joey Votto, so it seems as though Jed Hoyer is hoping to get best-possible-scenario performances from pretty much everyone they’ve added. There are a number of good prospects coming up and the great failure of their would-be dynasty was the abject lack of development from any draft pick outside the top of the first round, but now it feels like they’re putting too much faith in the farm to produce a full lineup of homegrown talent. They’re not really tearing it down further, nor are they truly trying to compete right now.
Neil: It appears from the outside looking in that the front office has decided to build for the future. Jed Hoyer tore it all down last year after the players responded to the combined no-hitter with the horrible losing streak. The team was outperforming prior to the no-no and then came crashing down. That trade deadline was so deflating to watch unfold because the white flag was waived and it ushered in a new era for the Cubs.
There could be a handful of players on the Cubs’ current roster that will be part of the next team that challenges the Cardinals for the division. So, to answer your question I think Hoyer and Hawkins are trying to put the best players they can on the field right now while rebuilding with an eye on next season and beyond.
Jacob: There were moves made that will give the Cubs a shot to sneak into the expanded postseason field in 2022 – but make no mistake – this team isn’t going to be serious contenders until the revamped and replenished farm system starts graduating guys. It’s all about the long-term vision right now (hence the massive sell-off and infusion of prospects we saw last summer). There are too many holes on the roster to take this team seriously in the short-term, but they did enough to sell some tickets and put folks in the seats, preventing a total dumpster fire on-field product.
C70: What do you think Patrick Wisdom will provide this coming season?
Josh: Wisdom is a really interesting player and the bottom line is no one knows what he’ll do in 2022. No one predicted he’d hit 28 home runs in just over four months last year. Heck, most thought that he’d play the whole season in Iowa. Clearly his power is real and 35 to 40 home runs in a full season is possible. He’s a defensive upgrade over Kris Bryant. But there are also some real red flags on Wisdom and that 40 percent strikeout rate is going to have to come down if he’s to remain an everyday player. He was terrific when he came up at the end of May and in June, but by August and the end of September, the league was getting the better of him.
Can he make the necessary adjustments? He’s never been able to in the past, but there have always been a few players who just don’t figure things out until they approach 30. I guess 2022 will tell us who Patrick Wisdom really is. I expect he’ll do something between a .310 OBP with 35 home runs and getting placed on waivers in June. I hope that helps. I am more optimistic that Frank Schwindel will build on his 2021 season than Wisdom will. But I don’t rule Wisdom out.
Evan: Wisdom should be more or less exactly what he showed last season: An exceptionally athletic defensive player who has a lot of boom/bust at the plate. While his swing-and-miss may improve a little, he’s never going to be a high-average contact guy. And that’s okay because he’s got plenty of power and the Cubs have made a point of adding more contact bats to the roster. Between his dance moves and his aw-shucks demeanor, Wisdom will be a fan favorite who will probably make Cardinals fans mad the team gave up on him. That said, he’s going to have maddening stretches of futility that make Cubs fans wish he was still a Cardinal. In the end, the good will outweigh the bad.
Neil: Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel were fun to watch after the trade deadline. There were more highlights and big hits from those two than just about any other players on the team. With that said, I do not think Wisdom will provide much for the Cubs this season or moving forward. I obviously hope I am wrong. There is too much swing-and-miss in his game, pitch recognition is concerning, at best, and he is not much more than average in the field. I think David Ross will have other players in the third base rotation that will end up getting more starts, and at-bats, than Wisdom.
Jacob: He’ll give us plenty of power and uncertainty, that’s for sure. For me personally, the Cubs’ success in 2022 – like, for them to have any shot at October, Wisdom and Frank Schwindel have to be solid. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Schwindel to be as dominant as he was down the stretch last season, but Wisdom’s power is the real deal. The only question is whether or not he can produce enough power and drive in enough runs for the team to look past his staggeringly high strikeout rate. If he can cut down on the punchouts while maintaining his power, that would be a game-changer for the Cubs.
C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?
Josh: The Cubs top prospect is outfielder Brennen Davis and he has some real All-Star potential. He’s a young, terrific all-around athlete with the skills to be a 30/30 center fielder, although he’ll probably move to right field eventually. He hit two home runs and was named MVP of last summer’s Futures Game. Davis finished up the season in Triple-A Iowa last fall. He’s got to work on making more contact on (or just laying off) breaking pitches, but it’s not a serious problem at the moment. Every time he’s struggled, he’s been able to make the necessary adjustments to thrive. Davis doesn’t have much more to work on. He should be in the majors sometime after the All-Star Break.
Evan: This one is tough because there are honestly so many. Brennen Davis is the obvious pick here because he’s their consensus No. 1 prospect and should debut this season. Righty starter Caleb Kilian came over from the Giants in the Kris Bryant trade and could also be up in ’21 if he keeps pitching like he did in the Arizona Fall League. He’s got upper 90’s velocity and impeccable command, a combination unlike anything the Cubs have seen in a decade or more. Max Bain is another hard-throwing righty who could explode on the scene if he puts it all together. But if I am being forced to pick one, I’m very excited about James Triantos, the Cubs’ second-round pick in last summer’s draft. He batted over .700 during his senior year of high school (which should have been his junior year but he accelerated his classes to graduate early), he has a 95 mph fastball, and he can dunk a basketball from a standing start under the rim despite being just 6-foot-1. He’s a freak athlete with a high motor and strong work ethic, though his eventual position isn’t yet determined. We’re probably looking at 2024 as the earliest he’d debut, but he’ll be a fun one to watch in the meantime.
Neil: Brennen Davis is likely the closest to the big leagues and could make his debut this year. The prospect I am looking the most forward to seeing is Pete Crow-Armstrong, the player the Cubs got from the Mets at the deadline for Javier Baez.
Crow-Armstrong is likely a couple of years away. But the combination of speed and offense, with elite defense in centerfield, is rather intriguing. Plus, I heard an interview several weeks back he did with Bruce Levine. He has the right personality to be successful in the Chicago market. Other prospects might have a higher ceiling, especially on the pitching side, but Crow-Armstrong has the tools to be a special player for the Cubs.
Jacob: Brennen Davis sure looks like the real deal and we’ll see him at some point in 2022. He’s a potential five-tool guy – and given the piecemeal approach the front office took in the outfield (seriously, there’s not a guy in that mix that doesn’t come with some sort of question), getting a look at Davis and having him established as a long-term answer will be a big piece to the puzzle as we enter this new era on the North Side.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Josh: Obviously another fourth-place finish is the safe prediction. But with the Reds’ fire sale and the Cubs signing Stroman and Suzuki, that might just put them in the range of third place. Is that going to be good enough for one of the four NL Wild Card spots? Probably not, but they’ve got a puncher’s chance. Every year some team in the Central surprises, either for good or bad. This isn’t a great division at the moment. Maybe the Cubs will add more players. But if you ask me right now, I think the Cubs will finish third and win 77 games, give or take five games. Respectable, but not a real contender.
Evan: As currently constructed, this is a third-place team all day. And that’s only because the two teams at the bottom of the division are actively trying not to win. We’re a long way removed from an NL Central that had the three best records in baseball in 2015, so now it’s more a battle of attrition. Between that and the expanded postseason, there’s not nearly as much incentive to really go for it. This is a function of the early question about going for it or tearing it down; the Cubs aren’t really in a spot where they can easily do either based on their place in the division, so they’re just hanging out.
Neil: Chicago Cubs Baseball will thankfully be on the air. It has always been and will continue to be fun to listen to the Northside Nine. This season, however, will be another challenge for David Ross to string wins together. The Cubs are at best an 81-win team, but likely closer to 75 wins and in third place in the Central behind the Cardinals and the Brewers. Based on the way the roster appears to be shaking out, the Cubs should finish as a second-division team just ahead of the Reds and Pirates.
Jacob: Thankfully, the Cubs’ division has the still-rebuilding Pirates and a rudderless Reds organization. But there’s a notable gap between Chicago and Milwaukee/St. Louis. If the Brewers or Cardinals are hit hard by injuries and everything goes right for the Cubs, maybe they somehow surprise some folks. But with the roster as-is and a likely Willson Contreras trade prior to mid-July, a .500 season seems like a ‘things went pretty well’ scenario in 2022.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Cubs Twitter accounts to follow.
Josh: I have to recommend my fellow BCB writer @BCB_Sara, who is a much, much better Tweeter than I am. Bleacher Nation is the only other Cubs blog that I read regularly and they have a good Twitter game at @BleacherNation. Finally, I’ll recommend my fellow prospect hound @OutOfTheVines, who I enjoy swapping thoughts on Cubs prospects with.
Evan: There’s a new Chicago-centric sports outlet called CHGO that has a lot of talented people on board, so @CHGO_Cubs is a fun one. Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian), known to some as Ol’ Dirty Bastian, is the Cubs beat writer for MLB.com and he’s one of the few in his field who actually uses a legit digital camera to snap photos during spring training and elsewhere. I’m going to go rogue here and name GOAT pitching coach Tom House (@tomhouse) as my third because he’s very active and shares a ton of wisdom about coaching that is particularly applicable to youth sports. No Cubs stuff, but it’s a nice bit of perspective for those who are or have been in that world.