The Rundown: Steele Could Be Cubs’ Ace, Hoyer Still Looking for Bargains, Rich Hill Joins Pirates

I hate to sound all “Bah! Humbug!” but I’ve already put Christmas behind me. I’ve ripped down all the decorations and I’ve set my sights on MLB 2023. I still have to get through two year-end events — my dad’s birthday and New Years’ Eve/Day, but those are just formalities. Instead, I’m all about the Cubs’ rotation, their farm system, and whether or not Jed Hoyer has enough offense to compete for the NL Central, or a Wild Card spot at the very least.

To be sure, Hoyer’s putting a lot of faith in more than a couple of his own wild cards. Rookies Matt Mervis and Hayden Wesneski will be starters in ’23, and Brennen Davis should see plenty of big-league action, too. The addition of Cody Bellinger allows the team to deliberately acclimate Davis to the majors, but the ex-Dodger also represents a bit of a gamble. The Cubs are trading what little offense they had last year for a strong defensive team. That said, Hoyer needs a reasonable bounceback from Patrick Wisdom at the plate and in the field.

Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart won’t replace the offense of Willson Contreras, but the pair will make the rotation better. Dansby Swanson is a huge upgrade over Nick Madrigal, but Nico Hoerner must stay healthy this year. If the second baseman has an injury-free season, it will be his first. If Wisdom and Bellinger turn things around and the combination of Mervis and Seiya Suzuki provide any semblance of power, the 2-7 portion of Chicago’s batting order should be formidable. I do have concerns with depth, however.

Jameson Taillon was not signed to be the Cubs’ ace and that’s not a role suited for Wesneski, Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, Kyle Hendricks, or Adrian Sampson. That leaves one man standing, so it’s fair to assume the front office believes Justin Steele is their best top-of-the-rotation candidate. Go ahead and pause for a second to debate the merits of that in your head. I did. Steele whiffs a little more than one batter per inning, he doesn’t give up home runs, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is impressive. All that’s missing is elite velocity, but that’s a lazy way of thinking.

Steele was working on an ace-like second half before a back injury cost him all of September. The lefty pitched to a 0.98 ERA with 11.5 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 after the All-Star Game and looked every bit the part of a rotation stud. He did that by working with a fastball that is consistently in the 92-93 mph range and a slider that gets swings and misses. Steele hasn’t peaked yet, either. If he remains healthy and develops a third pitch, the world, as they say, is his oyster. Among qualified starters, his second-half 22% K-BB% is comparable to Corbin Burnes (24%), Justin Verlander (23%), and Yu Darvish (21%). That’s pretty good company.

Wesneski is also capable of great things. The rookie shoved in four starts with a 1.85 ERA (3.87 xFIP), 0.95 WHIP, 49% GB%, and 8.1 K/9. Wesneski has a five-pitch arsenal and each offering grades as average or better. He induces a lot of balls hit on the ground or lazily in the air, and led all pitchers with a 12% line drive rate (30 innings minimum). If you scale that out over a full season that screams No. 2 starter. Wesneski pitched 143 innings between Triple-A and MLB with little analytic variance and he rarely issued walks. The righty gave up seven free passes in 33 innings with the Cubs.

I’m getting a little long-winded here, but the point I’m trying to make is that Hoyer is building toward 2024 with the possibility that his team could do a little damage a year early if everything goes right. The rotation looks very solid and the offense could be much better this year than last. I don’t have room or time to talk about the bullpen, but that looks solid, too. Is Brad Boxberger Chicago’s closer? Right now, it looks like David Ross will go with a closer-by-committee approach until one guy establishes himself.

Cubs News & Notes

  • Barnhart’s deal is nearly official. That’s not really newsworthy, but the MLB news cycle is a little slow this time of year.
  • Speaking of catchers, Sean Murphy signed an incredibly team-friendly contract extension the other day. The Braves must have a hypnotist on staff. That’s not Cubs-worthy news, but Hoyer should hire whoever is negotiating extensions for Atlanta.
  • I don’t speak “Hoyer,” but I think ol’ Jed is trying to say more additions are coming. “We still have pieces of our team that are not complete.”
  • That statement conjures images of a one-armed, one-legged, blind starting pitcher, albeit one with a ton of heart.
  • No offense to Anthony Castrovince of, but I’ve penciled in Steele as the NL Cy Young Award winner, with Mervis as the NL Rookie of the Year.
  • Just a reminder, Carlos Correa is only about six failed physicals away from signing a three-year, $42 million contract with the Cubs. I’ll be here all week, please try the fish.
  • This story about the daughter of ex-Cub Dennis Eckersley is heartbreakingly tragic no matter how you feel about what happened and what should have been done.
  • What one player do you immediately think of when you see the Cubs’ iconic logo? For me, it’s still Billy Williams.

Odds & Sods

Raise your hand if you remember those pink, barrel-sized, plastic bats designed to compete with the skinnier Whiffle version. The Savannah Bananas appear to have combined the two.

Thursday Stove

How about some bold 2023 predictions from Ben Nicholson-Smith, including a playoff appearance for Shohei Ohtani, but not with the Angels?

It looks like Nathan Eovaldi will be pitching for the Rangers. The veteran has reportedly signed a two-year deal worth $34 million. That also means all players attached to qualifying offers have contracts.

The Red Sox are adding Corey Kluber to bolster their rotation in the wake of losing Eovaldi. Is it just me, or has every corresponding move Boston has made left the team worse off? It might be a good time to pick off Chris Sale.

The Marlins signed Jean Segura to a two-year deal worth $17 million. I’m starting to think Madrigal might be a nice fit for the White Sox, who need a second baseman. How about Madrigal and Codi Heuer for Liam Hendriks?

Tommy La Stella has been DFA’d and needs a new team. Maybe he’ll be the second baseman on Chicago’s South side.

Rich Hill is going to play for the Pirates in 2023, which means those Bananas of Savannah will have to wait at least another year to sign the 2002 Cubs draft pick. The lefty turns 43 three weeks before Opening Day.

Deion Sanders said life in Major League Baseball was much tougher than his body of work with the NFL.

Extra Innings

“Work? I never worked a day in my life. I always loved what I was doing, had a passion for it.” – Ernie Banks

Do we get year-end merit bonuses at Cubs Insider? Just in case, the quote by Banks is exactly how I feel about writing here. That’s it. That’s my self-review.

Thursday Morning Six-Pack

  1. The Raiders are benching QB Derek Carr and armchair GMs among the Bears’ fanbase are connecting WR Davante Adams to Chicago. Let’s pump the brakes on such hyperbole, please and thank you.
  2. The 2022 Winter Olympics easily represents the most forgotten story of the year. The 13-hour time difference between Beijing and New York, which caused news of most results to be delivered before they were aired on prime time in the US, didn’t help matters. Russia invaded Ukraine a few days after the games ended, too. Neil Young leaving Spotify over Joe Rogan runs a close second.
  3. One Olympic medal winner still hasn’t been decided, and the games ended 10 months ago.
  4. The best story of the year is about a nurse who amputated a patient’s foot without his permission. Things can get a little nutty here in Wisconsin, and Mary K. Brown wanted to use the detached limb to teach children the values of proper foot protection during the state’s icy winters.
  5. I’ve finally discovered an acceptable way of explaining Pi (π), which is to say 22/7, or 3.14, irrationally speaking, of course.
  6. In fact, if you search long enough within the digits of Pi, you can find any number, including your birthday. I was born on March 31 and you can find 331 at position 1,127 of the infinite string. Go ahead and add your birth year if you’re in a challenging mode. It’s there, I promise.

They Said It

  • “I’m pretty sure I started with, ‘Listen, man, you’re an Atlanta guy, too. You’re also a Vanderbilt guy and hopefully, we’ll be in Chicago together. I need you to give it to me as straightforward as you can about the vision and what’s ahead and who’s coming in. How are we actually going to be good?’” – Swanson, to GM Carter Hawkins during contract negotiations.
  • “I talked to him about, ‘Hey, look, like we can’t guarantee any outcomes, but what I can guarantee is that you’re gonna be proud to be a Cub, and you’re gonna be proud to be a Cub for a long, long time.” – Hawkins

Thursday Morning Walk-Up Song

Three is a magic number, but pi is delicious, especially with some Cool Whip.

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