Before spring training kicks off, season projections start rolling in. Usually by this point in the offseason, there’s a good sense of who will be the main contributors of each roster. And though injuries and unforeseen circumstances could sway a team’s odds, projections leading into spring tend to be informative.
This year, a slow offseason provides a major wrinkle.
Big-name free agents remain unsigned as of Friday morning, including Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Jorge Soler and J.D. Martinez. Their decisions will send ripples through preseason projections.
The Cubs in particular still need to add an impact bat to cap their offseason. They’ve been open about their desire to improve offensively, especially with Bellinger hitting free agency.
“We do need to handle right-hand pitching better as a team,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention last month, “and that’s something we’re focused on.”
The PECOTA standings released Tuesday projected the Cubs to win about 80 games, three fewer than they won last season when they fell a game shy of a playoff berth. Fangraphs, which released their playoff odds Wednesday, gave the Cubs a 37% chance of making the postseason this year and a 21.3% chance of winning the division. (Teams have their own internal projection models.)
In addition to Bellinger becoming a free agent, the Cubs notably lost right-hander Marcus Stroman and corner infielder Jeimer Candelario. The two, while major contributors when they were healthy, were only available for parts of last season, with Stroman sustaining back-to-back injuries and Candelario joining the team at the trade deadline.
This offseason, the Cubs added manager Craig Counsell, lefty starter Shota Imanaga, corner infielder Michael Busch and relievers Hector Neris and Yency Almonte. Another major acquisition could swing their outlook for the season.
If early projections suggest anything, they reinforce the notation that the Cubs offense isn’t a finished product. Spring training opens this week, with pitchers and catchers’ first formal workout scheduled for Wednesday.
Here are questions the team will have to answer over the course of spring training:
Will Bellinger return?
A reunion between Bellinger and the Cubs would do wonders to address their offensive concerns, even if he doesn’t completely replicate his 2023 production. But striking a deal takes more than mutual interest.
The Cubs can expect a boost from hitters like Seiya Suzuki and Ian Happ if they can hone their consistency this season. Suzuki was one of the best hitters in MLB late last season but had a rocky start. Happ managed a .360 on base percentage, a career high for a full season, but slumped in June and July.
The Cubs, however, know internal improvement won’t be enough. They’ll take a step back offensively if they don’t add offense through free agency or trade.
How will Counsell deploy the back end of the bullpen?
Former Cubs manager David Ross declined to name a closer in spring training last year. Then, over the course of the first couple months of the season, Adbert Alzolay seized the role.
This year, Counsell has Alzolay with a season’s worth of closer experience under his belt. And Neris brings a resume that includes 89 regular-season saves and postseason familiarity. Mark Leiter Jr. and Julian Merryweather round out the proven late-inning group, leaving room for other young pitchers to establish themselves in high leverage this year.
“It’s a pitching staff as a whole you have to look at,” Counsell said in his introductory news conference in November. “It is different every single season. It changes from the first day to the 60th day of the season, to the 120th day of the season. And probably to understand that – that it’s always changing, that it’s never the same, that there is no one rule you can live by in your bullpen – is the best way to have a chance to do it successfully each year.”
What role will defensive versatility play in the infield?
Any offensive additions could affect the Cubs infielder’s roles. For example, if the Cubs did sign Bellinger, he could fill in at first base as needed, either taking the pressure off Busch to be an everyday player right away or giving the versatile infielder the freedom to move around the infield.
As the roster stands now, however, there is still flexibility at corner infield. Third baseman Patrick Wisdom can also play first base. Third baseman Nick Madrigal was a second baseman for most of his career. Christopher Morel has yet to settle into one position, and so far, Counsell seems to see value in that.
“His versatility is something that is going to get him on the field,” he said last month, “that gives the team a floor, where if something doesn’t go the way you want it, or maybe the way you plan it originally, that you can make an adjustment and have a lot of options there.”
At some point, Counsell conceded, the Cubs will have to decide where Morel should focus a lot of his work. But Counsell is going to give them time to see how it shakes out.