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Does Chicago Cubs’ Strong Finish Mean They Compete In 2023?

Chicago Cubs’ Christopher Morel, right, celebrates his three-run home run off the Philadelphia Phillies … [+] starting pitcher Aaron Nola with Alfonso Rivas and Yan Gomes during the fifth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Go back two weeks and pick out the hottest teams in baseball in that span. The Cleveland Guardians have had one of the best Septembers in years, but there’s a National League team that has only lost twice since Monday, September 19.

It’s the Chicago Cubs.

Since last Monday, they have taken two of three from the Marlins and Pirates, and the Cubs completed a three-game sweep of the Phillies on Thursday afternoon. They are 14-11 in the month of September and have a 35-29 record in the second half.

A lot of that is thanks to improved starting pitching. Marcus Stroman has a 2.74 ERA since July 9, and Drew Smyly and Adrian Sampson have emerged as second half stars. In the short term, pitchers like Hayden Wesneski, acquired from the Yankees at the trade deadline, have added their names to the 2023 rotation discussion. But the Cubs have also had emergent seasons from young batters like Christopher Morel and Nico Hoerner. The latter has been in the majors since 2019, but in Hoerner’s first (mostly) healthy season, he has batted .287 with 9 home runs and 21 doubles.

There will be changes going into 2023 — All-Star catcher Willson Contreras is almost certainly gone — but the Cubs will carry over a lot of their talent from this season.

Along with that, they are finishing 2022 with an estimated payroll of $146 million. There will be some money coming off of the books next year, which will leave them close to $100 million below the 2023 luxury tax threshold.

Team owner Tom Ricketts has indicated that he intends to approach the upcoming offseason with an open checkbook. Or, at least, he is willing to let his front office spend as they see fit.

“We figure out our projections, we figure out what it costs to put on games and to pay people to run the organization and everything else. And then everything left goes into baseball ops,” Ricketts told reporters a few weeks ago. “[President of baseball operations] each [Hoyer] has the resources to add people. If he feels like it’s the right person and the right time, he has 100 percent support from me, and we’ll leave it to him.”

Obviously, the current Cubs roster — or the part of it that will still be there next season — is not quite fit to compete in their division, let alone the National League. But they might not be far off if they are going to be assertive in free agency. On that front, the aforementioned Stroman is willing to help out.

“I’ll reach out and recruit,” he told reporters. “I’ll do as much as I can.”

The Cubs have used current players to help with luring free agents in the past, and not longer after signing with the team last December, Stroman went to work on Twitter to try and entice then free-agent shortstop Carlos Correa to come to Chicago. He was a salesman for the Cubs before even donning a uniform, so it would make sense to take advantage of his desire to help make the team more appealing to new free agents this winter.

“I would love to be involved in that process,” Stroman said.

There are clear needs for the Cubs next year. They are expected to be in on the bevy of free agent shortstops, a group that will include Correa along with Trea Turner, Xander Boegarts, and Dansby Swanson. The Cubs were heavily linked to Correa last winter and are expected to be in on him again, and rumors have already circulated that there is “mutual interest” between them and Turner.

Signing one of this group would mean Hoerner has to move over from shortstop, but he has said that is a compromise he would be okay with making.

“If they’re spending money to give us the best chance to be in the postseason and be not just a competitive team but a dominant team, which is what you want to go towards, obviously that’s the biggest priority,” Hoerner said earlier this month.

The Cubs also can’t go into the 2023 season without a clearly designated first baseman. There are a couple of internal options, but none of them have shown they can produce at the level a competitive team needs. They could go with short-term contracts with veteran players like Brandon Belt or José Abreu, or they could pursue someone like Josh Bell. If the Twins don’t exercise their $14.25 million option with Miguel Sano, he will be a free agent as well.

There is also need in the rotation because there are too many question marks there for the Cubs at this point. Some young arms have emerged, like Wesneski and Justin Steele and Keegan Thompson. Veterans like Smyly and Sampson could still stick around. Kyle Hendricks might return to form. After his injury-plagued year, Wade Miley might come back. But this is not enough to piece together a worthy starting staff. Guys like Carlos Rodón and Jacob deGrom could opt out of their current deals, and there are others — like Nathan Eovaldi — who will be unrestricted free agents this winter. The wise move for the Cubs will probably be to go big in this department. Let their cadre of young arms supplement established veterans like Stroman and someone else via free agency.

Since the All-Star break, the Cubs have shown that they can win. They can even win at a playoff pace. With the right moves this winter, they could do that over the course of the 2023 season.

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