And there was a moment where we thought the Cubs would have a relatively normal offseason. With the ink barely dry on the Rangers’ World Series win, the Cubs shocked the baseball world by signing manager Craig Counsell away from the Brewers with a five-year, $40 million contract. As attention turns to Hot Stove season, here’s what they need to do to make sure Counsell’s first year on the North Side ends with October baseball.
Chicago Cubs offseason preview
Season in review
The Cubs went 83-79 in 2023 and missed out on the postseason by one game after going just 12-16 in September — which was one of the things that ultimately cost manager David Ross his job. That said, they enjoyed breakout seasons from young talent like Christopher Morel (26 HRs, 70 RBIs) and Justin Steele (3.06 ERA in 173.1 innings) along with strong seasons from veterans Cody Bellinger (26 HR, 97 RBIs) and Ian Happ (21 HR, 84 RBIs). While they struggled with consistency and didn’t have a reliable bullpen arm outside of Adbert Alzolay, the Cubs were in the postseason hunt all season long, and there are plenty of intriguing prospects still in the pipeline.
Pending free agents
Bellinger is a free agent again after playing on a one-year, $17.5 million contract last year and will likely be in line for a six-figure contract. Starting pitcher Marcus Stroman will also head back into free agency after declining his $21 million player option. Stroman went 10-9 with a 3.95 ERA in 136.2 innings, though he tailed off as the season went on (8.29 ERA in his last 11 appearances of the season after having a 2.28 ERA in his first 16 starts). Jeimer Candelario is also hitting free agency after spending a half-season with the Cubs where he hit .234 with six home runs in 41 games, while bullpen arms Tyler Duffey, Shane Greene and Michael Fulmer will all test the market as well.
A Bellinger-sized bat and some pitching. While Bellinger toggled between first base and the outfield in 2023, the Cubs enter free agency with a clear need for an impact first baseman and at least two solid relief arms. Outside of that, any acquisitions would serve as upgrades more than necessities. One area that they could also look to upgrade is their starting staff, as their rotation currently consists of some combination of Steele, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly, Kyle Hendricks, Jordan Wicks, Javier Assad and Hayden Wesneski — plenty of options, but not a ton in the way of proven above-average production.
Best free-agent fits
Bellinger, Bellinger, Bellinger. After hitting .193 in 2021 and ‘22, Bellinger returned to his MVP form in 2023, slashing .307/.356/.525 with the aforementioned 26 home runs (those numbers would have been even higher if he hadn’t missed a month with a knee contusion). The Cubs extended Bellinger the $20.35 million qualifying offer, but he’s going to decline, which means Chicago will have to bid against the 29 other teams in their attempt to get him back. If Bellinger ends up signing elsewhere, the team could quickly turn its sights to someone like Rhys Hoskins, who enters free agency after spending the first seven seasons of his career with the Phillies. Hoskins, who hit six home runs for the Phillies in the 2022 postseason, missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in the postseason. A reunion with Candelario or a DH type like Jorge Soler or Justin Turner could make sense as well.
As for pitching targets, the Cubs seem unlikely to shop at the top end of the starting pitcher market, but someone like Japanese phenom Yoshinobu Yamamoto could make sense given his ace upside and younger age (25) than other big names like Aaron Nola and Blake Snell. There are still plenty of mid-market options available, though, such as Lucas Giolito or Michael Wacha. Josh Hader is the biggest name on the relief market, but Hector Neris, Robert Stephenson, old Cardinals rival Jordan Hicks or even old friend Aroldis Chapman could make sense.
It seems like any Cubs trade talk starts would start with Morel. There are rumors that Morel might end up playing first base (which could result in the Cubs not acquiring a first baseman in the offseason) and there are rumors that the slugger could be dealt in the offseason for a longer-term asset. If the Cubs do end up making a trade, chances are it will likely include infield prospect infield prospect James Triantos, who reportedly generated a lot of interest during the GM Meetings earlier this month. One target for the Cubs is Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, who has been the subject of trade speculation all offseason and is a client of Scott Boras. Alonso has slugged 192 home runs in five seasons with the Mets, and will be a free agent after next season.