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As Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts spoke with a group of a half-dozen reporters at Wrigley Field in early September, he used the word “success” as he reflected upon the season with roughly a month left to play.
Taken out of the context of how he used it, of course that could sound laughable. The Cubs were more than 20 games under .500 at the time, and it took a late-season hot stretch to end the year 74-88. In regards to the standings, this season wasn’t a success. The Cubs finished the year 19 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central and 13 games back of the last Wild Card spot. You can’t look at the Cubs’ record alone and say this season was a “success.”
But when you look at it in terms of what this season was always supposed to be about, saying it was successful does make sense.
The Cubs were focused on developing players and seeing what pieces they had in-house that could be a part of “The Next Great Cubs Team,” and in some cases, that’s exactly what happened. With answers to some of those questions coming from the first full season of this rebuild, they can probably cross off a couple of items from their offseason to-do list.
“The fact is that you can’t buy a championship team in baseball,” Ricketts said. “You have to build it, and that’s what we’re doing. In order to build it, you got to take years where you let young guys get at-bats, give them a chance to prove themselves and find out who you actually have to build around. That’s been what this year’s all about, and it’s been a success.”
In that sense, there were certainly some individual successes for the Cubs in 2022. From position players proving they have a long-term place in the field to pitchers coming into their own, there’s a list of players whose continued development this year can be seen as a success. So, it only makes sense to take a look at where those successes came from.
Because this list will only look at players who had some question marks coming into this season, players like Marcus Stroman and Willson Contreras weren’t considered. Stroman dealt with stints on the injured list and early-season ineffectiveness, and Contreras dealt with the emotions of being a trade candidate and an ankle injury that put him on the shelf for nearly a month in the second half, but their overall numbers ended up being what fans could’ve reasonably expected them to produce.
With that in mind, here are the top three Cubs “success” stories of 2022.
1. Hoerner breaks out
During this past offseason, the Cubs were rumored to be in the market for a shortstop. Why? Because they weren’t positive if Nico Hoerner was the long-term answer at the position.
Hoerner was talented, yes, but there were concerns that he wouldn’t last at the position and might be better off as a Gold-Glove caliber second baseman. Plus, he’d played just 44 games in his first 162-game season in the majors in 2021, so his ability to stay healthy was in question.
Well, Hoerner more than quelled those concerns in 2022. Not only did it take a freak collision in the outfield and a tricep injury caused by a diving stop to force him out of action this year to “limit” him to 135 games, but he also played like a top defensive shortstop. He finished with 11 defensive runs save (second in the NL, fourth in MLB) and 14 outs above average (second in both the NL and in MLB) at the position. He showed off improved arm strength and incredible range, making highlight-reel worthy plays nearly on a daily basis.
On the other side of the ball, Hoerner was worth 4.0 fWAR, the highest mark on the Cubs. His 106 wRC+ and 33.5 percent hard-hit rate don’t necessarily fit the profile of a top-tier hitter, but he finished with a minuscule 11 percent strikeout rate and a well-above-average 86.6 percent contact rate (Nos. 6 and 11, respectively, among hitters with at least 500 plate appearances), which showed the Cubs can slot him in comfortably near the top of the order.
All told, Hoerner has the makings of an all-around star for the Cubs. They may still add a shortstop this winter, but that might just mean turning Hoerner into one of the best second baseman in baseball. That’s not a bad thing.
And even if the Cubs run it back with Hoerner at short in 2023, he’s proven that that’s far from the worst-case scenario.
2. Steele locked into the rotation
Throw Justin Steele’s 4-7 record out the window. He’s the only pitcher in the majors who made at least 24 starts, had a sub-3.50 ERA and had no more than four wins on the season, and either way, his win total hardly matters when you take a look at the jump Steele made across the board in his first full season as a starter.
Steele’s standard stats don’t paint the whole picture of his season (though his 3.18 ERA was far below the league average of 4.05 among starters). It’s everything else that has the Cubs more than confident that they’ve found a foundation piece for their rotation for years to come.
Before missing the last six weeks of the season with a lower back strain, Steele was worth 2.6 fWAR, which still ended up being the most among all Cubs pitchers and ranked 51st across the big leagues among starters with at least 100 innings pitched (per FanGraphs). In the same group, his 3.9 percent barrel rate ranked second and his 33.3 percent hard-hit rate ranked 14th, and both were also better than the league-average starter’s marks of 7.8 percent and 38.6 percent, respectively. Add in his 51.2 percent ground ball rate (12th) and his 8.7 percent fly ball per home run ratio (28th), and Steele has the makings of a solid piece for a competitive rotation.
The best part? He still doesn’t feel like he’s where he wants to be.
The back injury cost Steele as many as seven turns through the rotation. As much as Steele would call his season a success, not reaching 30-plus starts this season is something he said will motivate him this winter. He said keeping the weight he put on over the last calendar year and adding more core stability are in his offseason plans. And if that’ll allow him to reach that goal of making 30-plus starts, the Cubs should at least have one starter locked into the rotation long term.
3. Happ reaches All-Star status
Had it not been for a two-month stretch in which he posted a 146 wRC+ to end 2021, Ian Happ may not have even had the opportunity to do what he did with the Cubs this season.
At the end of last July, Happ was hitting .180 and had posted a 73 wRC+. Had that level of production continued the rest of the year, he might’ve been a non-tender candidate last offseason (which wouldn’t have been too farfetched, considering the Cubs did the same to World Series champions Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. a year prior). But he drastically improved over the last two months of the season, the Cubs kept him around for 2022 — and he took off.
Happ earned his first career All-Star nod after posting a 128 wRC+ in the first half, living up to his billing of the ninth-overall pick by the Cubs in the 2015 MLB Draft. And whereas his career before 2022 was marked by extreme highs and lows at the plate, Happ remained consistent all season, finishing the year a 120 wRC+.
Additionally, Happ put together a Gold-Glove caliber performance in left field. The eye test tells you he looks comfortable there, and the numbers back that up to the tune of 13 defensive runs saved, the highest mark in the NL. For that, Happ credits being able to play every day at just one spot and not having to worry about anything else.
Moving Happ down the rankings is the fact that he may not be a long-term piece of the Cubs’ future. He was involved in trade talks at the deadline this year, and if the Cubs don’t deal him this offseason, there’s still another chance to do so in 2023. And beyond that, Happ will be a free agent a year from now. So, there may still be a parting of ways on the horizon, even if he isn’t traded by next year’s deadline.
But considering where he was 14 months ago, this season was a revelation for Happ. He can now say he’s an All-Star, and the Cubs can now justify him being their last top-10 pick before their last competitive era. Regardless of what the future holds for both sides, this season is where Happ found the type of consistent production that eluded him through his first five seasons in the majors.
- Keegan Thompson: Had Thompson had more success as a starter during his first full season in the big leagues, he is likely in the top three. Alas, his 4.83 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 19.1 percent strikeout rate in 17 starts were dwarfed by his 1.47 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 30 percent strikeout rate in 12 relief outings, so there’s still questions about his fit with the team as a starter. Still, he’s one of just 19 pitchers to allow one earned run or less over at least 2 2/3 innings in 10 different relief outings in a single season since 2000, and he’s the first Cub to do so since Dick Tidrow (11) in 1982. If his floor is as a viable, multi-inning relief weapon, that’s far from a bad thing.
- Christopher Morel: Who could ever forget the run Morel went on to start his big league career: a home run in his first at-bat; a franchise-record 22-game on-base streak to begin his career, also the eighth-longest streak in MLB history; a 149 wRC+ after two weeks in the majors; showing he can play at a high level at no less than two spots on the field while being able to play capable defense at as many as five. Morel had some peaks and valleys in his rookie season, but he wasn’t even on the major league radar six months ago. Now, he looks like a player who can contribute to a winning ballclub on the North Side.
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