The Rundown: Cubs Need Shutdown Closer, Prospect Love from ESPN, More Women Seeking MLB Opportunities

We’ve talked about the Cubs’ need for a heat-throwing top-of-rotation starter, but what Chicago’s North Side baseballers really need is a shutdown closer. I have a lot of confidence in the starters. They were magnificent in the second half, and substituting Jameson Taillon for Wade Miley makes them even better. Jed Hoyer has added plenty of depth, too. Like the rest of the roster, the current rotation is mostly high-floor players who do not get any love from MLB pundits, not that any belong on the list below.

Back in September of 2021, David Ross indicated he needed two bona fide starters. The Cubs added Miley, Marcus Stroman, and Drew Smyly last year, and made Taillon their big arm this year. Then you have the emergence of Justin Steele, though a few readers aren’t sold on him. I’m not ready to buy that Kyle Hendricks will regain his old form by adding a tick or two to his fastball. If he’s healthy, he’s one of the best No. 4 or 5 starters in the league.

Let’s look at some of the numbers and see what 2023 may look like.

  • Cubs starters had a 2.89 ERA in the final 70 games of 2022, third-best in the majors.
  • Hayden Wesneski had a 2.18 ERA in six starts after the Cubs acquired him from the Yankees for Scott Effross.
  • Adrian Sampson started 19 games last season with a spiffy 3.11 ERA. Sampson pitched six innings or more in four of his final five starts and allowed a maximum of one run in each outing, which dropped his ERA by nearly a full point.
  • Javier Assad had a 3.11 ERA in eight second-half starts.
  • Stroman allowed two runs or less in six of his 12 post-deadline starts.
  • Smyly allowed two runs or less in eight of his final nine starts, his one dog coming against the Cardinals when he lost 8-4 on September 19.
  • Steele had a 1.47 ERA with 59 strikeouts in nine second-half starts. If he can get his pitch count down, he’s an ace.
  • Taillon was 14-5 with the Yankees last season and was remarkably consistent.

The rotation is fine, but the Cubs need a reliable closer. Chicago was 26-27 in one-run games and 7-12 in extra innings last year. The Cardinals were 26-17 and 8-4, respectively a difference of nine games. Though the Cubs added Dansby Swanson, Cody Bellinger, Eric Hosmer, and Trey Mancini, the roster isn’t built to blow out a lot of teams.

Brad Boxberger probably isn’t going to own the 9th inning. Maybe it’s Brandon Hughes, who’s currently first in line followed by some combination of Boxberger, Rowan Wick, and Codi Heuer. Jeremiah Estrada has the best stuff among the reliever corps and could emerge as the team’s closer. Manuel Rodríguez was optioned to Iowa last week and will have to work to earn back any spot in the bullpen.

If Estrada meets the very lofty expectations mentioned in the above-referenced post by Evan Altman, the Cubs could close the gap on the Redbirds significantly. I admit Chicago’s rotation doesn’t look as strong as Milwaukee’s on paper or in reputation, but the stats are much more promising. If the starters can pitch as they did in the second half of 2022, the Cubs could challenge for a Wild Card or even a division title. They’ve got to win those close games, though.

On paper, Chicago is a 77-78 win team. I’m taking the over based on the rotation and potential of Estrada. It’s not just about last season, though. If the team’s starters prove that type of consistency all year, they’re going to dominate. You won’t lose a high number of games with a 2.89 ERA and a lights-out closer.

If I really wanted to overhype Chicago’s pitching staff, I’d tell you that type of profile reminds me a lot of the 1995 Braves. I’m not comparing Steele, Stroman, Wesneski, and Taillon to the careers of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz because that would be pure folly. But if you scale last year’s second half to 162 games, the single-season comparison is not far off statistically. I realize that sounds a little too Pollyannaish, but hope springs eternal.

Cubs News & Notes

Odds & Sods

If you don’t smile as soon as you see Harry Caray, you have no heart.

Stealing Home

I am really struggling with rebounding after being sick. I spoke to my doctor last night and she said I could be fighting fatigue for months. The combination of a blood infection and a weakened immune system usually results in death, apparently, so I feel very lucky. I wasn’t aware that I was that sick, and I should have asked more questions while I was in the hospital. I’m, the “give me a shot of penicillin and send me home” patient. It doesn’t work that way, I guess.

I’m still trying to find my way into my old routine, and today I’m fighting a low-grade fever. I hope my content isn’t lacking, so thanks for sticking around to read me. On the plus side, I’ve lost 11 pounds. Hospital food will do that to you.

Also, I have some travel coming up. I’ll be in Tampa February 14-18, so The Rundown will probably be an evening edition that week. I am also going to be in Costa Rica at the end of May for liver function therapy. Two things: No, I did not get a spring training invite from the Yankees, and no, my medical treatment is not experimental. It’s just not covered by insurance and it costs five times as much in the US as it does in San Juan. The money I raised via GoFundMe two years ago will pay for it, and, if successful, I won’t have to go on the transplant list this year, my last year of eligibility.

I’m still trying to book a trip to Arizona for some Cactus League action, but it may not be in my budget this year.

Thursday Stove

This is pretty cool: As part of the celebration for National Girls and Women in Sports Day, Major League Baseball invited 75 college softball players to their offices for a day showcasing the variety of on- and off-the-field options available for anyone who wants to remain in the game.

Blue Jays’ starter Alek Manoah clapped back at MLB analyst Anthony Recker over body-shaming comments.

Rod Carew believes Pete Rose and his 4,256 hits belong in the Hall of Fame. Seconded.

Jurickson Profar and Michael Wacha are the top remaining free agents.

With rule changes complete and harmony between the league and the union, Rob Manfred is now ready to tackle the prospect of expanding to 32 teams.

Here are 12 cities that are ripe for a new professional sports team.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

It’s arbitration season, and though the Cubs have no pending hearings, over 30 MLB players are waiting to find out how much they’ll earn this season. As an homage to the David Letterman post above, here are the top 10 contracts ever given to arb-eligible players.

  1. Shohei Ohtani $30M (2023)
  2. Mookie Betts $27M (2020)
  3. Nolan Arenado $26M (2019)
  4. Josh Donaldson $23M (2018)
  5. Bryce Harper $21.625M (2018)
  6. Francisco Lindor $21.3 (2021)
  7. Mookie Betts $20M (2019)
  8. David Price $19.75M (2015)
  9. Aaron Judge $19M (2022)
  10. Anthony Rendon $18.8M (2019)

Extra Innings

I love this gig for my guy, Dexter Fowler.

They Said It

  • “It was very clear from the minute we expressed interest after Cody [Bellinger] was non-tendered that he wanted a one-year deal in a place where he could reestablish his value. [He said] ‘I believe in myself, I want to go to a place and have success,’ and I felt like [this] could be that place.” – Hoyer

Thursday Walk-Up Song

There will be baseball before this month is over!

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