Do the Cubs have a realistic chance of winning the NL Central?

Feb 3, 2023 - 3:00 PM
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This offseason, the Cubs have signed more major-league free agents not on their team previously than any other MLB ballclub. (The Mets technically signed more, but a couple of them were re-signings of their own free agents.)

Will that make enough of a difference for the Cubs to compete for the division title?

You already know the key signings and acquisitions the Cubs have made. Let’s look at what their divisional rivals have done so far.

St. Louis Cardinals

Key departures: Corey Dickerson, Yadier Molina, Albert Pujols, José Quintana
Key acquisitions: Willson Contreras

Obviously, Contreras’ performance will be very important in determining the Cardinals’ direction this year. We all know what Willson can do — and I think we also know how revered Molina was in his 19 years in St. Louis. There will be a lot of pressure on Conteras to perform.

Don’t discount the retirement of Pujols, either. He had a very good 2.2 bWAR season. They’ll have to replace that production somehow.

And you might think losing Dickerson is “key,” but I’m glad he’s out of the Cubs’ division. At one point last year he set a Cardinals franchise record for consecutive hits (10), all against the Cubs, and overall vs. the Cubs last year he hit .581/.581/.968 (18-for-31) with four doubles, a triple and two home runs. Good riddance.

There remain questions in the Cardinals rotation, too.

Milwaukee Brewers

Key departures: Brad Boxberger, Andrew McCutchen, Omar Narváez, Jace Peterson, Hunter Renfroe, Brent Suter, Kolten Wong
Key acquisitions: Brian Anderson, William Contreras, Wade Miley, Joel Payamps, Abraham Toro, Jesse Winker

I’m not quite sure what the Brewers are doing here. It looks like shuffling the proverbial deck chairs. Narváez demolished Cubs pitching in 2021 (.333/.464/.548, three HR in 56 PA), but not so much in 2022 (.200/.250/.233 in 32 PA).

The Cubs have one of Milwaukee’s departures in Boxberger and the Brewers picked up a former Cub in Miley. The Brewers have switched catchers and second basemen as well.

The Brewers were in first place for a long time in 2022 but faded and finished seven games out. It’s hard to see them doing better.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Key departures: Ben Gamel, Kevin Newman, Roberto Perez, Dillon Peters
Key acquisitions: Ji-Man Choi, Rich Hill, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Santana, Vince Velasquez

The Pirates have a really good young shortstop in Oneil Cruz, who can throw and hit a baseball really hard. It’ll be fun watching him develop.

Otherwise I don’t see any real improvements here. The Pirates lost 100 games in 2022. They might do that again.

Fun fact: One of Rich Hill’s teammates his rookie year with the Cubs (2005) was Greg Maddux, who has been retired for 14 years.

Cincinnati Reds

Key departures: Chase Anderson, Aristides Aquino, Kyle Farmer, Mike Moustakas, Donovan Solano, Hunter Strickland, Justin Wilson
Key acquisitions: Curt Casali, Wil Myers, Luke Weaver

Last April, Reds president Phil Castellini angered fans in comments on a radio show:

When asked why fans should maintain their trust in an interview with Scott Sloan and Mo Egger, Castellini said fans should “be careful what you ask for.”

“Well, where are you gonna go? Let’s start there. Sell the team to who?” Castellini said. “If you want to have this debate — if you want to look at what would you do with this team to have it be more profitable, make more money, compete more in the current economic system that this game exists, it would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else.”

And that was before the team got off to a 3-21 start and lost 100 games. In January, he doubled down on that when speaking to a Reds fan group:

Reds president Phil Castellini, less than a year shy of making his infamous Opening Day comments, spoke to a Reds supporters club on Saturday saying the Reds operate like a “nonprofit,” calling baseball an “industry in crisis,” and bemoaning the state of a sport that has an increased number of teams out of contention on Opening Day.

The Reds are going to lose at least 100 games again.


To me, the revamped Chicago Cubs appear to be at least the second-best team in the NL Central. The Brewers have treaded water and could be worse; the Pirates and Reds are not competition in any real sense of the word.

Granted that it will take a lot of things going right:

  • Cody Bellinger having a bounce-back year
  • Dansby Swanson doing at least as well (or better) than he did in 2022
  • Seiya Suzuki taking a step forward
  • The starting rotation staying healthy and productive
  • Identifying a good closer and having that pitcher convert most of his save chances
  • The Gold Glove capable defense helping to prevent runs

That’s a lot of things that need to go right. But in my view, not all of them have to go right in order for the Cubs to compete with the Cardinals for the division title.

I think this is at least an 85-win team. Now, that won’t be enough to win the division. But if everything breaks just right, I can squint and see a division title for the Chicago Cubs in 2023.

Can you?

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