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by Free Picks USA - 3/28/2022 1:23 PM

The Cubs' 2021 season was divided into two halves. After finishing top in late June, they went on a free decline in early July, which may have been the reason for a significant trade deadline talent drain. The same squad that led the National League Central nearly three-quarters of the way through the season ended with 91 defeats.

That loss total is particularly concerning given that they won over 70% of their games in May and came close to finishing the first half with a winning record. Because the Cubs' roster was put together near the close of the season, it would be not very reasonable to predict whether they would be able to produce a competitive club in 2022. Surprisingly, returning to becoming a successful team is relatively simple.

When the Cubs signed Marcus Stroman to a three-year, $71 million contract in early December, they made an essential first step. The Cubs can solve one of their most pressing needs by acquiring Stroman. Since moving Yu Darvish a year ago and allowing Jon Lester to exit free last winter, the Cubs have primarily relied on Kyle Hendricks and a collection of young, inexperienced pitchers. That didn't go as planned. In 2021, Cubs pitchers had a 5.27 ERA, the fourth-worst in MLB, and Hendricks had his worst season. The outfield is their team's greatest weakness. Jason Heyward has become a costly defensive rotation, Ian Happ's bat is inconsistent, and left field is practically unoccupied.

In early December, Clint Frazier was signed as a one-year loan by the Cubs. At $1.5 million, Frazier is a low-risk, high-reward decision, but David Ross' outfield remains unfinished even if he succeeds. A reunion with Nick Castellanos would be almost too ideal, but if the Cubs want to stick with old friends, Kyle Schwarber will fill the void left by...Kyle Schwarber in left field. He's coming off a 3.4 WAR season and would offer the Cubs with power on the left side of the bat, something they lack.

It isn't easy to picture the Cubs achieving all of this, but if their front management is willing, they have the financial means to do it. The Cubs' payroll is expected to be about $114 million in 2022, far below the luxury tax level set by the current collective bargaining agreement. They also have contracts slated to expire in the next few years. Heyward's, to be precise. He is guaranteed $22 million for the next two seasons, but after that, he will be an unrestricted free agent.

Finally, it wouldn't take much for the Cubs to reclaim their division title. The National League Central is a weak division. In 2021, the Cubs finished fourth, but the Reds have regressed significantly, and neither the Cardinals nor the Brewers have made much progress. Both of those teams are talented enough to hold Chicago away right now, but that won't be the case for long if the Cubs improve their starting rotation and outfield and pursue a shortstop. If the Cubs can do some of the things above and build up some consistency, we can easily see them competing for the NL Central in 2022.

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