Jannah Theme License is not validated, Go to the theme options page to validate the license, You need a single license for each domain name.
sports

Cubs still look incomplete at start of spring training with many moving parts

Incomplete is still a fair way to grade the Chicago Cubs during their offseason, even in the final hours before the first formal practice of the Craig Counsell era. When Cubs pitchers and catchers shuttle around the Sloan Park training complex on Wednesday, the focus will be on those not on the team in Arizona. Until Scott Boras closes deals for all of his major free agent clients — Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery — there will be hope for another Dexter Fowler moment.

Fowler showing up in Mesa and wowing his teammates — after reportedly agreeing to a contract with the Baltimore Orioles — helped set the stage for the drama, energy and showmanship that defined the 2016 World Series team Fowler’s overall skills as a center fielder, hitter and leader became even more evident when the Cubs struggled to find his long-term replacement. That rarity is part of why Bellinger has quickly become a fan favorite at Wrigley Field and why the organization has such high hopes for Pete Crow-Armstrong.

But what really moved this championship group forward was a group of exceptionally reliable starting pitchers, backed by a historically excellent defense. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Hammel and John Lackey each made between 29 and 32 starts, covering 945 innings during the regular season. As Jed Hoyer, general manager of the 2016 team and current president of baseball operations, said during a winter question-and-answer session at the Cubs Convention: “No one in baseball has that anymore. »

“It feels like 100 years,” Hoyer said, estimating it will take more than 25 or 30 pitchers to have a successful season instead of the 13 players on the Opening Day pitching staff.

That reality means the Cubs will continue to monitor the pitching market and evaluate other ways to improve a roster that reports about 81 wins according to public projection systems. Currently, the Cubs have an estimated payroll of less than $210 million for this year, according to RosterResource, leaving them about $27 million below Major League Baseball’s first threshold.

The rotation

While managing the Milwaukee Brewers, Counsell saw Josh Hader, Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Devin Williams and Freddy Peralta all make their major league debuts. Counsell developed a reputation as a leader with a great ability to manage a pitching staff and keep players relatively fresh throughout the 162-game marathon. Burnes, a Cy Young Award winner recently traded to Baltimore, has made 75 career starts for the Brewers with five or more days of rest.

Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Jameson Taillon and Shota Imanaga each have a certain level of status due to their contracts and/or accomplishments. Javier Assad, Hayden Wesneski and Drew Smyly have varying levels of experience and success as swingmen. Jordan Wicks, Ben Brown and Cade Horton represent the potential wave of talented young pitchers who never showed up for the Cubs post-2016. In theory, there should be few games this year where the Cubs look up at first throw and feel like they don’t have a chance.

Craig Breslow, who oversaw the step-by-step overhaul of the organization’s pitching department over the past several years, has left the Cubs to become the director of baseball for the Boston Red Sox. This work was not the result of individual work and is certainly not yet finished. But the Cubs should benefit from Counsell’s ability to see the big picture. If the Cubs add another starter and/or high-leverage reliever, it’s a manager who can communicate with the players, mix and match, and make the roster pieces fit together.

“Every manager wants the starter to pitch well as long as he can,” Counsell said. “One of the hardest parts is we make a lot of decisions trying to keep players healthy and productive for a full season. And we don’t know – there’s no data. It is difficult to obtain precise figures on this subject. Sometimes when we pull a pitcher, I might not say it, but it’s just time for him to be done with the game. He is tired.

“It’s also about how he needs to pitch four more days and be good the next four days. And he also has to make 20 more starts for the season. Making sure he can do that is more important than the next game. We need to be confident that the reliever will get those three outs and that by keeping this guy healthy for the next 20 starts the Cubs will get more wins.

The bullpen

Hector Neris had a 1.71 ERA in 71 appearances for the Houston Astros in 2023. (Thomas Shea / USA Today)

Volatility is the name of the game when it comes to bullpens. Just when the Cubs thought they had it right — seemingly finding some consistency in extracting all the value from veteran relievers — 2023 proved it was an imperfect science.

Still, it was a productive season in that they discovered how valuable Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. could be in their respective roles. The addition of a pair of veteran arms in Hector Neris and Yency Almonte will help, but it’s the addition of Neris that really stands out. Neris is a consistent producer with experience in high-leverage moments in the regular season and October.

Beyond that, he will provide the veteran presence that the bullpen may have lacked last season. Neris is praised for his leadership skills and ability to communicate with his teammates. If he can take youngsters like Daniel Palencia, Luke Little and others under his wing and show them how to thrive consistently at the highest level, his arrival will be a big boost.

“By the end of spring training, we’ll probably have eight to nine players in our bullpen,” Counsell said at last month’s Cubs convention. “To tell you that I will have understood their roles for the season? I’m not going to. Whatever I tell the media in the final week of spring training about their roles, I will probably be wrong. I will not arrive there. That’s a bit of the nature of enclosures. What I’m really hopeful and excited about with this group that will be in the bullpen is that we have a good number of players. I am convinced that some players will make progress this year.

Bullpens remain difficult to predict. Perhaps this group would benefit from the addition of one more veteran. But between the arms acquired by the Cubs, those who emerged last year, and the young pitchers with potential, there are enough here for this group to, at minimum, not be a weakness, and at best transform into a force.

Programming

It’s easy to look at this offense — a group that put up 819 runs last season, sixth-most in baseball — and see what’s missing right now: Bellinger. But Counsell has already told us what the Cubs are doing: looking for wins.

Last season, by position, the team’s offensive leaders (wRC+) were center field (132), right field (127), and left field (117). Next on this list? Most likely, you wouldn’t have guessed third base with a 104 wRC+. So while many see a likely decline in center field if Bellinger isn’t re-signed, the best way for the Cubs to somehow match last year’s offensive production is that the other members of the alignment step up their efforts.

Can Dansby Swanson improve on the 104 wRC+ he posted last season and get closer to his 116 from 2022? Is Nico Hoerner taking another step forward offensively? Can Michael Busch be the answer to first base? What if Miguel Amaya embarked on the adventure in second year? Did Seiya Suzuki show what he was really capable of in the last two months of last season? A full season of Christopher Morel primarily handling DH would be huge for a team that had a low 89 wRC+ at that spot last season. These are just some of the ways the Cubs can serve on offense.

Ultimately, the best bet would be to bring back Bellinger, or perhaps recruit Chapman to play third base. The youth movement has already begun and there is a group of good prospects at the higher levels of the agricultural system. Bringing in an additional veteran hitter who provides a modicum of certainty can help everyone feel a little more confident that the offense has a chance to repeat, or even surpass, a surprisingly strong 2023 campaign.

After a multi-year rebuild, last season’s late collapse and the stealth decision to fire David Ross and hire Counsell, it’s certainly reasonable to expect more than modest improvements.

(Seiya Suzuki top photo: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

Gn En sports

Back to top button