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What’s next for the Cubs after landing Shota Imanaga?

Chicago finally got its much-needed rotation upgrade. What else do the Cubs need to do this winter as they hope to capture the NL Central in 2024?

Shota Imanaga of Team Japan reacts in the fourth inning during Game 4 of Pool B between Team Korea and Team Japan at Tokyo Dome on Friday, March 10, 2023 in Bunkyo City, Japan. Photo by Yuki Taguchi/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Just before the expiration of his posting window, Shota Imanaga finally has a Major League home: The Japanese lefty is reportedly headed to the Chicago Cubs, on a deal that seems to have more bells and whistles than a locomotive. (We don’t yet know the exact terms of the contract, but Jim Bowden reports that it begins at something like two years and $30 million, with a series of player and team options and performance escalators that could get it up to $80 million.)

It’s a big get for Chicago, who’d gotten off to a worryingly sleepy start to an offseason that began with very high expectations. The Cubs were at least one pitcher short, and in Imanaga they’ve landed a pitcher with a proven track record of stardom in Japan — across eight seasons, the lefty pitched to a 2.96 ERA with two All-Star appearances — and a deep arsenal of pitches that should allow him to more than hold his own against Major League lineups.

But now that Jed Hoyer has finally gotten his team on the board this winter, the work has just begun. This organization announced that it once again meant business when it poached Craig Counsell from the Brewers, and the NL Central couldn’t be more wide open for the foreseeable future; now is the time for Chicago to get aggressive and put a true contender on the field. Which begs the question: What else does Hoyer have to do to make that a reality? What needs still need to be filled, and where should Chicago look to fill them? Let’s break it down.

What should Cubs do next after Shota Imanaga signing?

Re-sign Cody Bellinger

This move made all the sense in the world the moment the 2023 season ended, and months later it still does. The Cubs need another middle-of-the-order bat, they desperately need a lefty to balance out what is an extremely righty-heavy group (the switch-hitting Ian Happ is currently the team’s only proven left-handed option) and they have holes at first base and DH. Oh, and they could use an insurance policy in case top center-field prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong — who went hitless with seven strikeouts in a 19-PA cameo last season — isn’t actually ready to handle Major League pitching.

In other words, Chicago needs ... well, someone who sounds exactly like Bellinger. There are reasons to think that the former NL MVP will regress a bit from a torrid 2023 in which he hit .307/.356/.525 (133 OPS+) with 26 homers and 20 steals in 130 games; his batted-ball profile is among the weirdest you’ll see from a player coming off an elite offensive season. But he still profiles as a significantly above-average bat, one that the Cubs can anchor their lineup around moving forward, and he doesn’t turn 29 until July.

With Imanaga in tow, Spotrac pegs the Cubs’ current payroll commitments at around $187 million — well below the $233 million luxury tax threshold, and well below the $231 million number at which the team ended the 2023 season. Landing Bellinger for something like eight years and $200 million brings the number up to $212 million, still giving Hoyer significant wiggle room to keep adding to the roster. Bellinger simply fills too many holes, and is simply too much of an upgrade over the other available options, for the Cubs to pass on him.

Sign Josh Hader — if the price is right

Pitchers and catchers report in just a few weeks’ time, and yet the clear-cut top closer available has had an ice-cold market. Hader’s dream of becoming the richest reliever in MLB history — surpassing the five-year, $103 million deal Edwin Diaz signed with the Mets last winter — is on life support, and if his demands drop accordingly, Chicago should be among the teams most motivated to take advantage.

It’s hard to overstate the catalytic effect Hader would have on this Cubs bullpen — as is true of signing an ace starter, bringing in an ace reliever pushes everyone else on the depth chart down a notch, thereby making them all a bit more valuable. Adbert Alzolay is a good-not-great reliever — fine as a team’s stopper, but downright sterling as the second-best arm in a bullpen. Similarly, knock Mark Leiter, Jr. and Julian Merryweather one rung down the ladder and you’ve got an impressive corps of setup men, plus the ability to rest them more often. Hader isn’t entirely without red flags, and Hoyer has not traditionally been keen to spend big on a closer. But the lefty is still among the game’s elite strikeout artists, comign off an excellent season, and if the market drops to something like $80 million that’s more than doable given Chicago’s financial picture.

But let’s say a team that misses out on the remaining top starters gets antsy and does in fact give Hader the bag. Hoyer should have no trouble balking at a nine-figure price tag, and moving instead to someone like the hard-throwing Jordan Hicks or former Rays setup man Robert Stephenson. Either way, this bullpen could use one more impact arm.

Commit to Christopher Morel as your starting third baseman

With Imanaga, Bellinger and a reliever in the fold, there’s just one real question mark remaining for the Cubs’ 2024 outlook: Who plays third base? Luckily for Chicago, the call is coming from inside the house.

We all know that Morel can hit — the man hits the absolute bejeezus out of the ball (90th percentile or better in barrel rate, hard-hit rate and average exit velocity), enough to make him an above-average bat despite striking out a ton. The 24-year-old slashed .247/.313/.508 with 26 homers in just 107 games last season, and while the aforementioned swing-and-miss leaves him prone to extended cold spells, it’s hard to argue with that production.

And yet, despite his very loud offensive tools, the Cubs have been reticent to hand him the keys to a steady, everyday job, opting instead to move him around nearly every position on the diamond. But 2024 should be the year that changes: Chicago’s current picture at third base includes a mix of Patrick Wisdom and Nick Madrigal, neither of whom are in Morel’s class as a player. The only real impact option available in free agency is Matt Chapman, who brings elite defensive skills but a very streaky bat that doesn’t seem likely to age well as he pushes into his 30s. Simply handing Morel the starting job seems far preferable to spending finite resources to bring in Chapman, whose market will likely benefit from the dearth of compelling infield options.