For the first offseason in three years, the Chicago Cubs can prepare for normalcy.
No COVID-19-shortened season affecting evaluations and limiting pitchers’ workloads the following year. No lockout imposed by Major League Baseball to prevent front offices and coaching staffs from communicating and working with players for 4½ months.
The Cubs can build off the developmental strides they made, particularly on the pitching side, as they enter an important offseason for the direction of the franchise.
They ended the season on a high note Wednesday, blowing out the Cincinnati Reds 15-2 to cap a 74-88 season. They went 39-31 after the All-Star break.
“From my seat, you always want to point (out) that it’d be nice to be popping champagne at some point. That’s where we’re trying to get to,” manager David Ross said after the season finale. “But these guys are true fighters.
“I told them that after the game, they fought all year, a lot of adversity, a lot of change, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of guys making their debuts going through what it’s like to get through 162 games, and these guys fought all the way. I’m super proud of how they finished.”
The path back to the postseason took a step forward with the emergence of younger pitchers and improved internal pitching depth — which should continue to be a strength next season — as well as Ian Happ’s all-around consistency resulting in a career year and Seiya Suzuki’s encouraging rookie season.
But the talent gap between the Cubs and the top title contenders remains obvious. Spending money in the coming months is a must to supplement the current roster and the rise of their top prospects to the upper levels of the minor leagues. With the caliber of players available in free agency and the money the Cubs should be able to spend, fielding a postseason contender is a realistic goal for 2023.
“We’re at the back end of a season — not where we want to be,” Ross said Wednesday. “I still want to be playing, so that’s the way I reflect. I look at it like we’re going to be better really soon. Like, let’s hurry up and get there because I’m ready to play in October.
“I’m jealous of the teams that are going on to play, and I’ll have to watch that on TV. We’re almost there, but we’re not yet and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
In dissecting what went right and wrong for the Cubs in 2022, here’s a look at three numbers that defined their season.
42: Record number of pitchers used
For the first time in franchise history (aside from the 60-game 2020 schedule), the Cubs finished the season without a pitcher throwing at least 140 innings.
They needed 42 pitchers to get through the 162-game grind. That included nine who made their major-league debuts, three position players (Andrelton Simmons, Frank Schwindel and Franmil Reyes) and a single-season franchise-record 17 starting pitchers. The previous record of 15 starters occurred eight times, most recently in 2006.
Congratulations to anyone who can name every pitcher the Cubs trotted out to the mound this year.
The 42 pitchers ties the major-league record set by the 2019 Seattle Mariners and matched by the 2021 Baltimore Orioles and 2021 New York Mets. Injuries to starters tested the Cubs’ pitching depth as Wade Miley, Drew Smyly, Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks were sidelined for chunks of time.
The Cubs couldn’t overcome the rotation’s injuries during the first half of the season, at one point having Miley, Smyly and Stroman on the injured list at the same time in June. While the sport has evolved in recent years with how starting pitchers are used — namely limiting many from facing lineups a third time through and valuing multi-inning relievers in bulk, leverage spots to bridge to the back-end relievers — effective innings-eaters still have value.
Pitching depth matters only so much if it isn’t bolstered by top-tier talent. Acquiring a top-of-the-rotation starter should be among the Cubs’ highest offseason priorities.
98: First-inning runs
For all of their offensive shortcomings, the Cubs had a knack for jumping on starting pitchers early. They ranked sixth in the majors in first-inning runs scored.
Often those runs opened the scoring in a game. The Cubs scored first in 95 games this season, third in the majors behind the Houston Astros (98) and Mets (96).
The Cubs didn’t capitalize on their early scoring as much as they could have. They went 51-44 when scoring first, and when games were close late, they struggled at times to finish them off, going 26-27 in one-run games.
Some of those issues in squandering leads come down to experience. Few of the regulars in the lineup entered the year with more than a season or two of everyday starting experience.
3.33: 2nd-half staff ERA
This was the Cubs’ second-lowest ERA after the All-Star break since 1977, surpassed in the last 45 years only by the 2016 World Series champions’ 2.90 ERA. The rotation was especially nails over the final three months, posting a 3.33 ERA for the fifth-best mark during that span behind four teams who are in the postseason.
Adrian Sampson finished things off for the rotation with two runs (one earned) in 2⅔ innings Wednesday before exiting as a precaution because of right groin tightness.
Cubs relievers set a single-season franchise record with 656⅓ innings pitched, exceeding last year’s mark of 631. The bullpen produced plenty of whiffs, combining for 716 strikeouts to lead the majors while also setting a single-season team record. The next-closest bullpen, the Minnesota Twins, finished with 41 fewer strikeouts.
The organizational pitching talent is there and provides a solid jumping-off point for 2023.