The Rundown: Suzuki Poised for Big Year, Counsell Not Rushing Shaw or Caissie, Athletics Release Vegas Stadium Renderings

If you had to choose one Cubs player to have a breakout campaign, who would you pick? It’s Seiya Suzuki for me, but it wasn’t an easy decision. It was tough to choose the right fielder over Nico Hoerner, and I could easily flip, but I’ll take Suzuki. Both players will be instrumental to the team’s fortunes this year, and if the Cubs are going to win the NL Central, they’ll need big years from both.

Suzuki ended the 2023 season on a career-defining tear. The 29-year-old slashed .350/.406/.667 with 31 extra-base hits over his final 50 games, emerging as a dominant force in Chicago’s slumping lineup. Suzuki’s underlying metrics suggest he’s poised for a big year.

  • He inished in the 83rd percentile in exit velocity.
  • His hard-hit rate was in the 84th percentile.
  • The right fielder has a great eye, evidenced by his 91st-percentile chase rate.

His 2023 breakout happened after David Ross gave the struggling outfielder a much-needed timeout last August. That followed a brutal two-month stretch in which Suzuki batted .212 with a 59 wRC+ and just two home runs in 202 plate appearances. The reset period worked wonders. Among all qualified batters during that stretch, Suzuki ranked second in average (.356), slugging (.672), wRC+ (187), and wOBA (.449). He was worth 2.6 WAR, tied for fourth in all of baseball.

The most noticeable shift was Suzuki’s aggressiveness. He has such a good eye that he often lets borderline pitches go, resulting in unfavorable counts. Everything clicked for the star outfielder once he started turning on those pitches.

“Taking some of those chances earlier in counts really helped him last year,” hitting coach Dustin Kelly said at the start of camp. “Knowing that he can get to some pitches that were in the heart of the zone earlier in the count just really helped open up the aggressiveness, and what it ended up doing is it just put a little bit more fear into the pitchers of knowing that, hey, he’s gonna be swinging earlier than what he has been in the past.”

Pitchers will undoubtedly adjust, but they’ll have to avoid falling behind by missing the plate. Suzuki is batting .464 for his career when faced with a 2-0 count, and he has a .905 OBP if a pitcher goes to 3-0. His career OPS is 1.049 whenever he is ahead in the count. Anybody who can control the strike zone that well while working himself into batter-friendly situations is bound for a big season, which is why I’m expecting a breakout year.

Don’t be surprised if Suzuki moves up in the order and hits 25-30 home runs in 2024. He is forecasted by ZiPS to have Chicago’s highest OPS+ with 124. His projected slash line calls for .272/.352/.478 with a .205 ISO. That might be a little low if his Cactus League play is any indicator. Suzuki has a blistering .364 ISO in 29 plate appearances and blasted his first home run on Wednesday.

Long-time readers may remember I had little faith in Hoerner or Suzuki at the beginning of their Cubs careers. Hoerner had the team’s highest WAR last season, so charge me with the error. Though I liked the Suzuki acquisition a great deal, I feared he would block prospects heading into this season. That’s a good problem to have and gives the team great flexibility going forward. The right fielder’s continued growth gives him a leg up on Chicago’s prospects, at least for the duration of his current contract.

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Climbing the Ladder

I want Shaw’s bat in the lineup, but he’s not ready to be Chicago’s everyday third baseman. The hot-hitting rookie fumbled an easy play at second base in the Cactus League opener against the White Sox, and that’s his best position. That said, I believe Shaw will be better than serviceable if he goes to Iowa to play third exclusively.

Caissie is going to be the best among Chicago’s prospects, something I’ve said repeatedly since he was acquired in the Yu Darvish trade. I’ll go one better: Caissie is going to be the most exciting player the Cubs have had since Javier Báez. By that, I mean we are going to hang on his every at-bat once he reaches the majors. I often compare him to Mike Trout, though he lacks Trout’s speed. That’s a heady comparison, but I am willing to die on that hill.

I’m a big fan of Happ and Suzuki, but I can’t help dreaming of an outfield of Alexander Canario, Pete Crow-Armstrong, and Kevin Alcántara. That leaves Caissie without a position and I’d prefer he doesn’t play first base. Caissie’s development path may force the Cubs to eventually trade Canario or Alcantara.

Not necessarily Cubs news, per se, but I’m not going to jump on the free-agent bandwagon next winter. Corbin Burnes and Juan Soto are players the Cubs should sign, but I don’t want to get my hopes up and I don’t want to spend the entirety of next winter writing about them. Hoyer’s M.O. will preclude him from being the top dog in any pursuit of either player, so I prefer to give up today instead of spending a winter pining for either (or both) to come to Chicago.

Spring Training News & Notes

The Athletics unveiled the proposed architectural renderings of their new Las Vegas stadium.

Believe it or not, we are halfway through spring training and Opening Day for every club except the Dodgers and Padres is three weeks away.

The NL West rivals will play a series in Seoul, South Korea starting March 21, and the lids positively slap.

On that note, Steve Garvey, who starred for both teams during his playing career, is one step closer to becoming the next Senator from California.

Rookie Paul Skenes will not make the Pirates’ Opening Day roster.

Carlos Rodón is looking to regain his swagger.

Scott Boras believes that a recent rash of pitching injuries will strengthen the market for Snell and Jordan Montgomery.

Red Sox starter Lucas Giolito has a partial UCL tear and could miss the entire season.

Justin Verlander has a shoulder issue and will start the season on the IL.

The Mets could save a lot of money if Verlander misses more than just his Opening Day start.

Gray’s hamstring strain is considered “mild” but he will likely start the season on the injury list while working at the Cardinals’ spring training facility.

Keith Law of The Athletic says that this year’s draft class ($) lacks “up-the-middle bats” and elite high school talent.

The Dodgers acquisition of Shohei Ohtani was the biggest move of the offseason, but the best addition was Burnes going to the Orioles.

Extra Innings

Shaw has some serious range, though he lacks the necessary arm strength to play third in my opinion. In his defense, he may have rushed the throw a tad because he was a little sloppy transferring the ball from his glove to his hand. Right now I prefer Morel to Shaw at the hot corner, but I’d love to have both bats in Counsell’s daily lineup.

They Said It

  • “For Owen [Caissie], it’s a camp to really listen, learn, and watch. He’s probably played more than he thought he was going to play. That’s been great for him; that gives you good feedback. It’s the kind of camp you want for your first major league camp. With Matt [Shaw], his experience at camp has been very good. We’ve been able to get him a ton of at-bats. We’ve been able to expose him to third base a little bit which has been great. It showed [Tuesday] night and he made a couple of really nice plays. It was fun to see.” – Counsell

Thursday Walk-Up Song

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