The offseason is usually about building momentum for the next season. But when it comes to the National League Central, the five teams in the division must have hit the snooze bar a few times. Only two noteworthy free agents were signed by Central teams and there were no major trades.
What is the end result as Opening Day 2023 approaches? The St. Louis Cardinals, who easily pulled away to win the division in 2022, are the hands-down favorite to recapture the Central title again this year. The Milwaukee Brewers, who had their franchise-record streak of three consecutive postseason appearances snapped with a dreadful close to 2022, retooled their offense without a key acquisition and didn’t bolster their bullpen. Many expect the Chicago Cubs to be a significant threat after adding free-agent shortstop Dansby Swanson, while the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are hoping to find a little magic fairy dust in 2023.
2022 Record: 74-88 (.457 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
Additions: SS Dansby Swanson, RHP Jameson Taillon, OF-1B Cody Bellinger, LHP Drew Smyly, 1B Eric Hosmer, 1B-OF Trey Mancini, C Tucker Barnhart, RHP Brad Boxberger, RHP Michael Fulmer, 1B-3B Edwin Ríos
After finishing the 2022 season 22nd in the MLB in runs scored, the Cubs addressed their lineup with three free-agent acquisitions. The biggest of those is shortstop Dansby Swanson (seven years, $177 million), who slashed .277/.329/.447 with 25 homers and 96 RBI for an OPS+ of 115. The other two are risk/reward signings.
Outfielder-first baseman Trey Mancini (two years, $14 million) and center fielder-first baseman Cody Bellinger (one year, $17.5 million) received short-term deals as they have something to prove. Mancini slashed .239/.319/.391 with 18 homers and 56 RBI between the Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros, while 2019 NL MVP Bellinger was at .210/.265/.389 with 19 homers, 68 RBI and 14 steals. Any sort of a rebound by Bellinger would be big and that could come with the change in the shift rules, opening up opportunities for left-handed power hitters.
As spring training tends to do, the offense hit a snag when right fielder Seiya Suzuki came down with a moderate oblique strain, which will sideline him temporarily. Suzuki, who slashed .262/.336/.433 with 14 homers and 46 RBI in 111 games, came into camp slightly bulked, which could have contributed to this injury. Tucker Barnhart was signed to replace Willson Contreras behind the plate and the former Detroit Tigers backstop is nowhere near the offensive threat (OPS+: Contreras 128, Barnhart 64), albeit considered to be a better defender. Home runs figure to be a big part of the Cubs’ attempt to score more runs, but will enough guys get on base ahead of those long balls?
Projected Starting Rotation
Similar to the offense, the Cubs needed to reinforce the rotation via free agency. But that led to only one noteworthy signing: right-hander Jameson Taillon (four years, $68 million). Another veteran, left-hander Drew Smyly, was also added on a two-year, $19 million deal. Neither moves the Cubs up a tier in their bid to be a contender.
Right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who underwent season-ending right shoulder surgery in July, is unlikely to return until the end of May at the earliest. Even then, Hendricks’ effectiveness has waned in recent seasons. Taillon was effective for the New York Yankees in 2022, going 14-5 with a 3.91 ERA (110 ERA+) and 1.19 WHIP. He figures to slot in at the No. 2 spot behind right-hander Marcus Stroman, who posted a 6-7 record with a 3.50 ERA (117 ERA+) and 1.15 WHIP in 25 starts. Neither is an ace.
Joining Smyly in the back of the rotation are left-hander Justin Steele and right-hander Hayden Wesneski. Steele and Wesneski are young and have a bit of potential, but not enough to elevate them into the top-two spots in the rotation.
Who will close? Does it matter? It would seem right-hander Brandon Hughes, who had eight saves during his rookie season, will enter 2023 with the title of closer, but that seems tenuous at best.
Veteran right-handers Brad Boxberger and Michael Fulmer were brought in to fill the other late-inning roles and could step in if Hughes struggles in the ninth. Otherwise, the bullpen is young and remains a work in progress, with righty Rowan Wick the most experienced of the bunch. The Cubs will need more depth here as the season transpires.