The Cubs made the first big splash of the offseason by purloining Craig Counsell, widely regarded as one of the top managers in baseball, from the division rival Brewers, under the nose of the voracious, all-consuming Mets. On January 2, the Cubs introduced Counsell’s major league coaching staff. Right-handed pitcher Colten Brewer will also be joining the team in 2024.
But Counsell’s signing was supposed to herald a big and flashy offseason, a statement of intent that the Cubs were set to return to the forward-thinking, all-conquering form that made them such a force in the National League in the middle of the last decade. But the Cubs’ most recent trade was November 6. Their most recent major league free agent signing was Edwin Ríos, on February 17 of last year. That assumes Brewer is on a minor league deal; he’s pitched in the majors in five of the past six seasons, but he broke his own signing on Instagram rather than going through the agent-to-newsbreaker pipeline.
Having a quiet offseason so far is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s plenty of winter left, and plenty of free agents still on the board. Besides, maybe Jed Hoyer is doing a bit based on the fact that the team’s mascot is a bear and bears hibernate. That’d be sick. If there are two things I love, it’s hibernating and overcommitting to a bit.
Last year, the Cubs finished 83-79, a game out of the second Wild Card but nine games behind the division-winning Brewers. Clearly, another forgettable in-the-vacinity-of-.500 finish is not the goal, otherwise they wouldn’t have given Counsell a record contract.
So what in the realm of modest optimism would make one think they’re set to improve enough to make the playoffs?
Well, it’s possible the Cubs’ roster is better than their record indicated in 2023. They finished seven runs adrift of their Pythagorean record, which was the third-worst differential in baseball. Even if luck alone doesn’t float that win total up a couple ticks, upgrading from David Ross to Counsell might. There are limits to how much a managerial upgrade can help a team, but this managerial change ought to get close to those limits.
Pete Crow-Armstrong getting to the majors last fall was pretty exciting, as it gives the Cubs a like-for-like replacement (if only defensively) for Cody Bellinger. First base also cannot be worse than it was last year, when the Cubs were replacement-level at the position despite Bellinger playing 59 games there.
Having mentioned Bellinger twice in one paragraph, now feels like a good time to mention that while the Cubs have not been active on the free agent market thus far, they do have holes to fill.
Bellinger, having declined his end of his mutual option, is the biggest. Marcus Stroman and Jeimer Candelario will also leave behind notable voids.
Going spot-by-spot down this Cubs roster, everything seems… fine. Pretty good, in some places. Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner, and PCA make for a formidable defensive spine, but I don’t know if there’s a significantly above-average hitter among them. Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki are a good corner outfield tandem, but not a great one. Justin Steele and Kyle Hendricks? Good. Last season, eight Cubs finished with between 2.0 and 4.9 WAR, including Bellinger and Stroman. Last season, 24 players produced 5.0 WAR or more; 18 of those played for playoff teams, and eight of 12 playoff teams had at least one.
This isn’t about the importance of Swanson or Steele improving by a fraction of a win; that doesn’t matter very much in and of itself. The point is that playoff teams have star power — especially teams that actually do damage in the playoffs. Could the Cubs continue to eschew the free agent market, sneak into the postseason by being the man with one eye in the NL Central, and get cowbelled in the first round like the Brewers often do? Sure. But hopefully their ambitions are greater than that.
The Cubs did try to sign Shohei Ohtani, which would’ve represented the ultimate pursuit of star power. In the end, it seems like there was little else they could’ve done to court a player who was not primarily concerned with wringing every nickel out of his day job. The Dodgers could give Ohtani a far, far better competitive situation and keep him in a city where he already lives, with a climate not primarily characterized by cold and wind. (I love Chicago, because year-round sunshine makes you weak, but I understand this is a minority opinion.)
What were the Cubs going to do, rest their case on the off chance that Ohtani would be overawed by Chicago’s exquisite architecture? I think not.
The good news is that this offseason is proceeding slowly. Bellinger and Stroman are still free agents, as are Jordan Montgomery, Blake Snell, Josh Hader, and Matt Chapman. (Imagine what adding Chapman to the Hoerner-Swanson double act would do to Chicago’s infield defense.)
And they’ve still got money to spend. Last year, the Cubs’ payroll number against the competitive balance tax topped out at $227.7 million. So far, their commitments for 2024 bring that number to $185.9 million, according to RosterResource. That is some $51 million shy of the lowest CBT threshold. And let’s be real — this is the old-money team in one of the biggest cities on the continent. The Cubs ought to be spending at or above the tax.
That likely gives them enough space to add not one but two of the top remaining free agents without going over the tax threshold. Even if they do go over, say, to sign a veteran first baseman or DH, the tax bill itself would be a pittance.
But they actually have to make those moves. With the Dodgers and Yankees having done their shopping, the Braves tickling the second CBT surcharge threshold after the Chris Sale trade, and most of the other big teams either standing pat or resetting, the Cubs might actually be in a perfect position to slow-play things. Wait out some of the remaining pitchers and let the market come to them.
Montgomery, Snell, Bellinger, and Chapman are all Scott Boras clients, and baseball’s poet laureate is known for taking his time when finding homes for his players. So we’re probably something like five weeks or three major signings — whichever comes first — from actually being in a position to ask what the heck the Cubs are up to.
But they’ve set new expectations by hiring Counsell. It’s fine that their offseason so far hasn’t met those expectations. It won’t be fine if we’re still saying the same thing in March.