David Bote, Jason Heyward Projected to Be Much Better in ’22…But There’s a Big Catch

Remember how everyone from fans to the front office hoped for the past several years that the Cubs would bounce back to the offensive prowess they displayed in 2016? That was fun. Those days are behind us now because nearly the entire roster has been turned over, though there are some players from whom I think we’d all like to see better results.

And wouldn’t you know it, FanGraphs’ Steamer projections indicate that a pair of Cubs will be near the top of the list when it comes to improved production in 2022. While neither David Bote nor Jason Heyward found themselves among the four most interesting bounce-back candidates as laid out by Eno Sarris of The Athletic, they rank fourth and 10th, respectively, when it comes to projected wRC+ increase.

Ah, but there’s a really big catch here, which is that both are still projected to post the kind of numbers that say they’re still below-average run producers. Additional context further reduces optimism, so I figure there’s no better time to dig into the unfortunate reality of the situation than these dull early days of the lockout.

Let’s start with Bote, who is coming off of what was easily the worst season of his career as he battled a shoulder injury en route to a 64 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR. He set career-low marks for batting average (.199), OBP (.276), slugging (.276), walk rate (8.3%), ISO (.131), and wOBA (.268) while playing in just 97 games. Offseason shoulder surgery should keep him out until at least June, making his quest to bounce back a difficult one.

Not only will Bote have to work himself back into shape, but that limited availability means whatever impact he can have will be greatly reduced. Steamer believes he can get to a 94 wRC+, just a few points below the average of his first three seasons (99), and doing so would mean Bote is a very serviceable bench bat with some pop.

That’s really not bad at all given how the Cubs have previously done a poor job of assembling solid role players.

Heyward, on the other hand, isn’t a role player and doesn’t afford the Cubs the luxury of using him in a very limited role. At least he hasn’t thus far, though the situation may change if he can’t author a marked improvement over his ’21 numbers. Heyward had climbed each season with the Cubs, culminating in a 129 wRC+ in 2020 that made him arguably the team’s best offensive player.

Being an average hitter was more than enough when he was playing Gold Glove defense, but Heyward has fallen off dramatically in that aspect and was just ninth among right fielders with 4 defensive runs saved last season. Getting him back to a 95 wRC+ would no doubt represent a huge improvement over this past season, particularly if the Cubs are able to platoon him against lefties, but it might not be a great idea to expect even a return to that level.

Sarris referenced the findings of Jeff Zimmerman, who wrote for FanGraphs in 2019 that even conservative projections are unreliable when it comes to players who’ve reached the age of 32. Heyward just crossed that threshold in August, making it difficult to put much faith in his ability to recapture his numbers from 2018-20. The silver lining here is that we’re not talking about trying to get back to production that’s 30% above league average.

Perhaps the most obvious statement about this whole thing, aside from the fact that these are simply two examples from a computer model, is that the Cubs will need a lot more improvement from several other players in order to be competitive next season. They’re also going to need a few more players, whether that’s spending huge on Carlos Correa or hitting big on a few buy-low possibilities.

Whatever happens, I just hope we’re able to discuss this in more than hypothetical terms by March.

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