Heading into 2023, modest optimism was perhaps the prevailing feeling of most Chicago Cubs fans.
Coming off a 74-88 campaign that featured a strong September and several notable free agent signings, there was reason to be excited about the Cubs heading into 2023. Yet that excitement was audibly dismissed by nationwide projections, with PECOTA projecting a 77-85 record for this year's Cubs.
At 12 games over .500 with 22 games to go, the Cubs are just one win away from matching those projections.
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Going 50-28 in their last 78 games after starting the season 26-36, the Cubs have benefitted equally from expected contributors, such as Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson and Marcus Stroman earlier in the season, to pleasant surprises such as Mike Tauchman and most significantly Cody Bellinger that have put the club squarely in the pennant race.
As the North Siders make their final push for their first playoff berth in a full season since 2018, here's a look at the five Cubs that have had the most to do with the team's successes.
5. Ian Happ, LF
Coming off of a career-year that saw the lifelong Cub collect a Gold Glove along with his first All-Star appearance, some can look at Happ's 2023 season as a step backwards, as he sports a lower batting average and has seen a drop-off in some defensive metrics.
Despite this, Happ has had adjusted into remaining a middle-of-the-order force for the Cubs, setting career highs with 75 runs, 13 stolen bases and 88 walks thus far in the season.
In addition to Happ's steady offensive threat that has progressed into him having one of the better eyes in all of baseball, he has performed like an MVP against every division rival.
Throughout this season, Happ has an OPS above 1.000 against the other four NL Central teams, including a 1.133 OPS against his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates.
4. Dansby Swanson, SS
Signed to the second-largest contract in franchise history, the expectations were lofty on both ends of the field for All-Star and World Series champion Dansby Swanson.
The 29-year-old shortstop has lived up to many of the expectations, particularly on the defensive end, where he has posted 2.4 defensive WAR, tied for second in the National League among all defenders.
Additionally, Swanson's 15 outs above average and 11 runs prevented are tied for the MLB-lead, arguably making the Cubs the team that has best responded to the removal of the defensive shift.
Swanson has coupled the exceptional defensive work with around league-average offensive production, posting 42 extra-base hits while setting a career-high with 60 walks.
3. Justin Steele, LHP
In the running for the NL Cy Young Award with a candidacy that's quickly gaining traction, Steele has undoubtedly been the most valuable arm for the Cubs this season.
Following up on a breakout 2022 campaign which saw the southpaw post a 3.18 ERA across 24 starts, Steele has emerged as one of the game's finest pitchers in 2023.
Holding a 16-3 record in 26 starts, Steele leads the MLB with a 178 ERA+ while only yielding 11 home runs in 152 innings of work.
Steele's consistency has come amid an otherwise tumultuous season in the Cubs rotation.
Confronting an injury to Marcus Stroman and struggles from Drew Smyly and Jameson Taillon, Steele's performance has been a steadying force in what has been a source of worry for Cubs fans for much of the season.
2. Nico Hoerner, 2B
Perhaps the embodiment of the identity of this era's Cubs team, Nico Hoerner has put up excellent numbers across the board, many of which have also gone for career-highs.
The catalyst behind a new run-heavy approach, Hoerner's 36 stolen bases leave him tied for sixth in all of baseball.
His speed has been paired with increased slug, contact and patience, setting career-high marks with 40 walks, 86 runs, 151 hits, 25 doubles and 62 RBI.
As if the offense hasn't been enough, some had questions if Hoerner would be able to quickly adjust to the other side of the middle infield with Swanson's arrival.
His first full season at second base has left no doubt on Hoerner's status as one of the game's premier defenders.
Accumulating 2.0 defensive WAR while also preventing 11 runs and recording 14 outs above average, Hoerner will almost certainly be a finalist for the NL Gold Glove Award at second base.
While not posting the flashiest offensive numbers on paper, Hoerner's consistent contact bat paired with elite defense on a nightly basis has made the homegrown infielder an indispensable part of both this Cubs team and the franchise's future.
1. Cody Bellinger, CF/1B
I mean, could there be any doubt?
Signed to a one-year, $17.5 million deal that was seen as a low-risk, high-reward investment in an attempt to give a former MVP a new environment to flourish in, it's fair to say that even the best-case scenario that a fan could have envisioned fell short of what Bellinger has done as a Cub.
Bellinger got off to a solid start in the season's first month-and-a-half, looking like the Cubs made a sound investment in a player who had found his stroke again.
Before heading to the IL on May 15, Bellinger was hitting .271 with an .830 OPS, numbers that exploded once he returned a month later.
Since then, Bellinger has improved his slash line on the season to .321/.365/.555, good for a near-MVP level .920 OPS.
The return to his previous MVP form could not have been forecasted, but it's been instrumental and needed for the Cubs' turnaround, one that prevented the team from selling Bellinger at the trade deadline for what likely would have been a significant package.
With a 142 OPS+, Bellinger has provided the Cubs with 24 doubles and home runs apiece, adding a career-high 19 stolen bases while providing stellar defense in both center field and first base.
Bellinger's return from the IL and immediately torrid performance was pivotal in igniting what has been a months-long hot streak for the Cubs that has the North Siders moving closer to a coveted playoff berth, an outcome that would exceed even many of the optimistic outlooks for the club in March.