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  • Three Concerns About the Chicago Cubs in 2023

    Jonah Puhls

    Despite losing three of four against the Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs still found themselves in a favorable position, starting the season at 12-9. They followed up that disappointing performance with an impressive 6-0 win to start a three-game homestand against the Padres, but then dropped the second game of the set. 

    Image courtesy of © David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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    It has been a better-than-expected start to the season for the Cubs, who now have a 29.7% chance to make the playoffs, via FanGraphs. The club had an 11.2% chance to make the postseason when the season kicked off.

    Numerous variables have contributed to this promising start – great starting pitching, timely relief pitching, and strong starts from Ian Happ, Dansby Swanson, and Patrick Wisdom.

    However, with the Dodgers series exposing some potential weaknesses for the Cubs roster, it’s time to take a pessimistic view on a promising start. Here are three things that could potentially have Cubs fans worried as we head into late April:

    1. The bullpen rotation, especially the closing spot, is of concern right now. After a solid start to the season, reliever Michael Fulmer has had issues over his last several appearances. In his last 1.1 innings pitched, Fulmer has given up five hits, six earned runs, and blown two saves. Since his appearance against Seattle on 4/10, Fulmer has an ERA of 13.50, with a K/9 rate of 7.50, BB/9 rate of 4.50, and HR/9 rate of 3.00. These marks are well off the standard he has set since moving to the Tigers bullpen in 2021.

    The Cubs bullpen has been inconsistent - and just straight-up unimpressive at times - accumulating an ERA of 4.11 thus far, which places them at 18th in the MLB. There have also been less-than-stellar showings from Julian Merryweather, Brad Boxberger, and Javier Assad.

    Whether it’s David Ross pushing the right buttons, the relievers finding improvement on their own, or needing replacements, the Cubs bullpen is a cause for concern this season. Though there is some promise from Keegan Thompson, Adbert Alzolay, Michael Rucker, and Mark Leiter, not all is negative in this respect.

    1. Patrick Wisdom has had a phenomenal start to the season, which has played a large role in the Cubs’ start. He has a slash line of .256/.310/.679. However, his hitting has been too much boom-or-bust to start the season. Of Wisdom’s 20 hits this season, nine have been home runs – 14 have been extra-base hits. He currently had an ISO of .423, far ahead of his career high of .287 in 2021 and .220 last year. His Barrel% and HardHit% are well above his career highs, which has led to his .989 OPS is well above his career average.

    While this is good news for the Cubs, one has to wonder if a regression is in store for Wisdom. It is still being determined how his season may progress once he stops hitting home runs at such a high rate. Hopefully, the Dodgers series isn’t the beginning of this - since the beginning of that series, Wisdom has gone 3-21 (.158) over the five-game stretch, with a K% of 42.9%, .211 ISO, and a slash line of .158/.238/—368 (64 wRC+).

    1. Here we are, continuing to be worried about things promising to start the season, but should the Cubs have a better start, given how strong the starting rotation has been? Is the starting pitching depth good enough?

    With an ERA of 3.09, the Cubs starting pitching has the 4th best ERA in the MLB and 2nd best in the NL. Marcus Stroman, Justin Steele, and Drew Smyly have been particularly impressive, giving up only 19 earned runs over 82.1 innings pitched – a combined ERA of 2.08. All three pitchers are off to career-best starts. If a regression is in store for these pitchers, can the rest of the rotation pick up the slack?

    This part becomes worrisome, as Jameson Taillon is on the IL with a left groin strain, Kyle Hendricks is still fully recovering, and his effectiveness is unknown. Hayden Wesneski has had a disappointing start to the season. If we see some regression from the top of the starting rotation, there is too much uncertainty with the other starts and the bullpen to feel comfortable with how the Cubs may respond.

    After the Padres series, the schedule gets more favorable for the Cubs moving forward. The next couple of weeks may go a long way in determining exactly what type of team the Cubs have this year.

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    Worrying about Wisdom feels like finding a $20 bill in your coat pocket and being disappointed it's not a $50.  If you told me coming into the season that we'd get '22 Wisdom’s bat and '21 Wisdom’s glove I'd have been ecstatic.  The fact that his offense appears to be improved a little bit from last year too?  He'll have some slumps but given the full picture take them and don't ask questions IMO.

    The pen is interesting, and almost the opposite of the last few years.  I like every reliever we have down there except Boxberger (and I don't completely hate him).  But Alzolay and Hughes are probably the only guys I trust in a tight and close game right this moment?  Fulmer can get back there pretty quickly, but right now it's just two dudes and the last week has featured several tight games against good offenses.  It's exposed the cracks in the unit.  Ross is dipping his toe into the water of giving Rucker high leverage work, and I'd like to see that continue to escalate.  And Merryweather and Estrada don't need to be relegated to pure mopup work either.

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    8 minutes ago, Bertz said:

    Worrying about Wisdom feels like finding a $20 bill in your coat pocket and being disappointed it's not a $50.


    Wisdom is definitely going to regress. I'm less concerned about that happening than I am others picking up the slack. Seeing some life out of Mancini is a good thing to see for that reason.

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    Yes and no on Wisdom. I don't think anyone was expecting top tier performance, but along those same lines no one was really expecting a playoff appearance. The way to move to that conversation is for players to exceed expectations/projections. We've obviously seen some of that this year, and some of it seems more sustainable. Wisdom's doesn't look particularly sustainable, in that a .398 iso would be the 7th best this century (and he's certainly not Barry Bonds or 2001 Sammy Sosa, or even 2023 Max Muncy). But the K rate has gone from historically bad to just very bad while the walk rate has stayed consistent, and ZIPs has him at a 3 win player for the year. With his power, I don't think we should really expect more dongs as the weather improves (unlike Dansby or Seiya) because Wisdom's are typically no doubters regardless. But splitting that difference on his 2022 and 2021 isos and defensive numbers the rest of the year puts him pretty comfortably at 2.5-3 wins. 

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