Can the Chicago Cubs really make the postseason in 2023?

(Photo by Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images) /

With all the (justified) excitement over the possibility that Carlos Correa might sign with the Chicago Cubs in the winter in exchange for an asteroid’s worth of currency, and the (less justified) hope that a certifiable ace such as Jacob deGrom or Justin Verlander might join the club, it’s worth evaluating the depth of the hole in which the Cubs currently find themselves, and how far they might be from the playoffs next season. WAR figures in this post are from Baseball Reference.

The Cubs are currently sitting on 73 wins with two to play. The worst team to make a full-season playoff appearance since 2016 was your 2017 Minnesota Twins, with 85 wins. If twelve teams had been eligible, as is this case beginning this year, the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals would have been the weakest entrant, with just 83 wins.

So there’s a first approximation of the distance Chicago must travel next season to reach the postseason: Add 10 or so wins over this season, and they might make the playoffs – but it’s probably not quite enough. Bump it up to 15 extra wins and they have a very good chance to play meaningful October baseball for the first time since 2020.

If the Cubs sign both Correa and deGrom, and if both repeat their career-best seasons with the Cubs in 2023, the Cubs will gain around 15 wins. That’s good!

Eamus catuli novii! Cubs’ WAR gains with the best versions of Correa and deGrom

  • Correa (7.0 WAR) effectively replaces Nick Madrigal (0.5 WAR) in the lineup
  • deGrom (9.5 WAR) replaces Keegan Thompson (1.1 WAR) in the rotation

And even better, this would free up Thompson to fulfill his destiny as a bullpen weapon. But how likely is this scenario?

Correa will be entering his age-28 season next year. There is a good chance that he has multiple All-Star caliber (5+ WAR) seasons left. But with deGrom it’s a different story. He pitched 204 innings in 2019, but has thrown just 218 since. He returned from injury on Aug. 2, and has put up a tasty 2.93 ERA and a ridiculous FIP of 1.74.

But deGrom’s ship is starting to list a bit. In three of his last four starts he surrendered 11 runs to the Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland As, three teams that have struggled mightily in wood bat leagues. His Statcast page still has red all over it, but he’s giving up hard contact this year. The xwOBAs for all his pitches – other than his infrequently deployed curve – are, while still very good, up from 2021. He’s 34. The best of Correa may still lie ahead; the best of deGrom is probably in the rearview. He’s still a very good pitcher, but not a 9.0 WAR presence moving forward.

A more realistic appraisal of the immediate impact these guys could have focuses on their median seasons (5.0 WAR for Correa, 5.5 for deGrom). Using the same substitutions as above, that would add around nine wins, taking the Cubs to the cusp of postseason contention but probably not enough to punch their ticket.

And yes, I hear Verlander is good at baseball too, but he’s starting to get the senior citizen grocery discount – you can run this analysis with him in lieu of deGrom and arrive at similar numbers, but remember that he is six years older than deGrom. Verlander is going to get All-Star money, but will he pitch like that? There have been 181 player-season by pitchers in their 40s in the Wild Card era. Six of those have been All-Star caliber (5+ WAR) seasons. Verlander is certainly better equipped to buck those odds than most, but he will be a wasting asset, declining as the Cubs’ younger players round into form.

The Cubs should seek sustainable success rather than quick fixes

The free agents, whoever they turn out to be should, of course, not be alone in adding wins (in fact, if they are, a postseason run seems unlikely). So a lot will continue to ride on the organization’s revamped player development program. The Cubs certainly seem to be developing players faster than they did before, but the only comparison of interest is whether they can develop players faster than their opponents.

If one can measure development progress by looking at late season performance, the picture is mixed. The Cubs are 38-30 with a 3.33 ERA since the All-Star break with a nearly league average K rate of 8.3 per 9. Twelve of the 17 guys who pitched for them in September have ERAs under 4.00 for that month. If this isn’t progress, it’ll do ’til progress gets here.

The hitting, on the other hand, has collapsed. In September the bats have struggled to a .660 OPS.  Seven of the 18 hitters who have appeared in Cubbie Blue in September have a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio. If September performances send a development message, this is one the front office would rather not receive.

Make no mistake, the Cubs should be all-in on Correa, a franchise player with back issues who wants to play in the central time zone to minimize long flights. (The Cubs have the third-shortest total travel distance this season, though that may get longer with the forthcoming balanced schedule.) I’m less sold on the aging True Number One Starters, who will likely be paid more for what they’ve done before arriving in Wrigley than what they are likely to achieve there. (This is all assuming that deGrom opts out, which appears to be a near-certainty, and Verlander does not exercise his player option, which also appears likely.)

Carlos Rodon will be a free agent, an injury risk to be sure but coming off an outstanding age 29 season. Aaron Nola, Luis Severino, and Blake Snell are all slated for free agency in 2024, and they’ll all be just over 30. None of these guys has the storied past of deGrom or Verlander, but they all (barring serious injury, admittedly a potential issue for most of them) probably have brighter long-term futures. And the Cubs now have some pretty good internal depth to choose from as well.

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Which leads to the main point here: the Cubs front office should certainly seek to enhance the team through free agency, but it should not engage in a desperate heave to make the postseason next year at the expense of building a sustainable contender. There is work to do on many fronts, and progress rather than postseason should be the Cubs’ primary objective for 2023.