Last trade deadline, Chicago made the painful but necessary decision to move on from several of its core members, particularly Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo. The moves hurt the Cubs in the short term, as they limped to a 71-91 record and a fourth-place finish in the NL Central. However, they were able to uncover a few intriguing pieces while building for what hopes to be a promising future.
Even though their division is the weakest in baseball, the Cubs aren’t going to be serious contenders in 2022. That said, when manager David Ross turns in his first lineup card of the season, there will be a few must-see hitters to keep an eye on.
The Cubs are counting on two of last year’s breakout players to keep it rolling
1. Rafael Ortega (LF), 2. Frank Schwindel (1B), 3. Ian Happ (DH)
Even under Joe Maddon, the Cubs have struggled to land on a consistent leadoff man. For now, Ortega is the leader in the clubhouse to sit atop the order. The 30-year-old was the definition of a four-A player until he slashed a career-best .291/.360/.463 with 11 home runs and 12 steals in 330 plate appearances. Chicago could also use Clint Frazier in place of Ortega against lefties, but the bulk of the leadoff duties should still go to the rangy outfielder.
The Cubs had a few surprises last season, though none more so than the 29-year-old Schwindel. After being picked up off of waivers in mid-July, the righty slugger hit a whopping .342 to go with an OPS of 1.002 and 13 home runs. If he hits at that rate this year, he’ll be a runaway favorite for MVP, so it’s fair to expect some regression. That said, he’s definitely earned the first base job and the two-spot in Ross’ lineup.
It was a tale of two seasons for Happ. The 2015 top-10 pick hit .183 with a .626 OPS before the All-Star break. But in three fewer plate appearances after the break, he hit .268 with a .886 OPS and cranked 16 of his 25 total home runs. Happ has always been a streaky hitter across his first five seasons in Chicago. At this point, the Cubs just have to hope they get more of the good Happ than the bad version in 2022.
All three players out-performed their season expectations in ’21, so the talent is there. However, a lot of Chicago’s success will depend on whether each batter proves that last year was no fluke.
Seiya Suzuki is the Cubs’ X factor in 2022
4. Willson Contreras (C), 5. Patrick Wisdom (3B), 6. Seiya Suzuki (RF)
Somehow, Contreras survived the great purge of last season. The 29-year-old is entering his seventh season with Chicago, but he’s starting Opening Day without Bryant, Baez, and Rizzo for the first time. Since this is the last year of his current deal, it’s likely Willy ends the season on another team. But while he’s in town, he’ll still bring 20+ home run power and a high OBP to a lineup lacking a definitive All-Star.
In 2020, the Cubs signed the recently-released Wisdom in the middle of their abbreviated season. Now, he’s their starting third baseman fresh off of a 28-homer season and a fourth-place finish for NL Rookie of the Year. Wisdom has prodigious power but is a strikeout machine, accruing 153 Ks in just 375 plate appearances. Even though the 30-year-old won’t ever be a high-average bat, he could easily end up as the team’s leader in dingers.
Chicago is clearly undergoing a rebuild, but it still shelled out money for two key free agents: starting pitcher Marcus Stroman and Suzuki, the latest star to come from Japan. The 27-year-old outfielder has been playing professionally since 2013, eventually transforming into one of the best power hitters in the Japan Central League. Despite a slow start to his spring, the Cubs’ $85 million rookie has enormous potential.
The middle of the Cubs’ order has plenty of raw power. If Suzuki ends up being the star Chicago thinks he can be, Wrigley Field will see a lot of home runs in 2022.
A product of last year’s trade deadline will round out the lineup
7. Jason Heyward (CF), 8. Nico Hoerner (SS), 9. Nick Madrigal (2B)
Heyward joins Contreras as the only World Series Cubs in the starting lineup, although it’s not much by choice. The 32-year-old has never been an exceptional hitter, but he slashed a career-worst .214/.280/.347 in 104 games last season. Not only that, but he is set to make $24.5 million this year and next as he finishes his eight-year, $184 million deal. On the bright side, Heyward should offer nice veteran leadership to the unproven Cubs.
It’s easy to like Hoerner, Chicago’s first-round pick from 2018. The 24-year-old has proven he can hit at the big league level, swinging a personal-best .302 in 2021. That said, three separate stints on the Injured List limited Hoerner to just 44 games, four less than his career-high from 2020. It will be interesting to see how the young shortstop handles a full workload for the first time in his MLB career. If he falters, veteran Andrelton Simmons will be ready to take his place.
Finally, the Cubs acquired a lot of intriguing young players during last year’s deadline. One of them was Madrigal, who went from the White Sox to the Cubbies in exchange for closer Craig Kimbrel. The 25-year-old is very similar to Hoerner, hitting .317 in 83 career games with little to no power. Like his new double-play partner, Madrigal’s growth over a full 162-game season will be one to watch, as his ’21 campaign ended with a torn hamstring in June.
It’s evident that the 2022 Cubs lack the significant star power they once had in their lineup. But with a few breakout vets and high-upside youngsters, you’d be foolish to completely sleep on Chicago’s chances to do some damage in the batter’s box.