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Craig Counsell a believer in Cubs' present and future

Jared Wyllys Avatar
March 16, 2024

MESA, Ariz. — In less than two weeks, the Cubs will open their 2024 season in Texas. As things currently stand, projections for them are modest. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has them at 81 wins. Over at FanGraphs, they’re projected to win 82.

No projection model is ever intended to be a prediction, and most of them err conservatively, but that doesn’t paint a very optimistic picture for the Cubs this year. For manager Craig Counsell, though, there are a couple of reasons he’s still bullish on his ‘24 squad.

One, the makeup of the 26-man roster is still being decided. So, any projections we see in mid-March aren’t based on exactly the team he’ll run out come Opening Day on March 28. And two, the Cubs have a dynamic farm system, and Counsell knows that’s a group that he can tap into as the season goes on.

According to MLB Pipeline, the Cubs have the second-best farm system in baseball. The last time they ranked as high was in 2015. Three of the top-100 prospects in baseball (Pete Crow-Armstrong, Kevin Alcantara and Michael Busch) are all on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. As Counsell, his coaching staff and the front office decide which 26 players they will take with them to open the season on the road against the Rangers, they will do so knowing there are strong options available outside of that group.

“[This creates] flexibility in being able to make decisions, and being able to account for things that don’t go right and having another solution,” Counsell said. “I think that’s really important. That’s what a good farm system does.”

No major league roster gets through 162 games unscathed, and teams have to be able to count on their minor league depth to address needs that pop up. In recent years, for example, Nico Hoerner debuted in September 2019 when Javier Báez fractured his left thumb. Christopher Morel got called up in May 2022 when Jason Heyward was moved to the injured list. 

Having such great depth in the minor leagues also accounts for the reality that not all prospects pan out. The Cubs were so successful in 2015, 2016 and 2017 because they were the exception to the rule. Four of their most recent first-round draft picks at the time — Báez (‘11), Albert Almora (‘12), Kris Bryant (‘13) and Kyle Schwarber (‘14) — played significant roles in their playoff runs those years. 

These days, the Cubs have more pitching depth in the minors — they’ve used two of their last three first-round picks on arms — but they have a system that is almost as loaded as the group that started to break out around 2015. Still, this time around, they can’t necessarily bank on almost all of them making it to the big leagues, let alone making it and having an impact.

“Every organization labels their players as prospects, because we want to believe in our players,” Counsell said. “I think the great thing the Cubs have going right now is that there’s a lot of kids you can talk about. And that’s fun because they’re all on this journey to try to become guys, you know. And some of them will. Some of them won’t, but there’s enough of them that the odds are really in our favor that there’s going to be that guy.”

When the team breaks camp and these minor leaguers head off to their respective assignments, Counsell won’t have direct eyes on them anymore, but he said he watches minor league games and reads up on players’ progress throughout the season. However, before then, he has decisions to make about who does break camp on the active roster.

There are plenty of obvious choices, but a few spots remain in question. Counsell said this week that Ian Happ, who has not played in a game this spring since Feb. 29, is on track for Opening Day, so the Cubs outfield group is probably set. Mike Tauchman is most likely the fourth outfielder, and depending on how Counsell and Co. decide to handle other parts of the roster, Alexander Canario could be the fifth. He impressed during a short stint last September and is 10-for-37 this spring.

But in the infield, Nick Madrigal has been out with a hamstring injury since the first week of March and, according to Counsell, is looking less likely than Happ to be ready for Opening Day. That said, Morel is lining up to be the most regular third baseman on the team, while Patrick Wisdom can back up third and first. Assuming Miles Mastrobuoni also stays on the 26-man roster, the Cubs will have what they need from first to third base. 

“We’re looking to put together a complimentary roster, certainly,” Counsell said. “Some of these guys are going to have bigger roles, some of these guys are going to have smaller roles, but you’re looking to compliment and find places where their skill set can maybe fill in a gap where guys that might play more regularly don’t have. Or you’re just looking for the best players.”

Counsell joked Friday that the only thing that’s certain is he’ll need two catchers — almost certainly Yan Gomes and Miguel Amaya — and although Jameson Taillon is a near lock to start the year on the injured list, there’s depth to cover his spot in the rotation for the first couple weeks in April. 

The Cubs have some non-roster invitees who could factor into Counsell’s decisions. There are prospects like Matt Shaw, Owen Caissie and Chase Strumpf who probably won’t break camp on the major league roster but who could reach the big leagues this year, along with veterans like Carl Edwards Jr., Jorge Alfaro, Garrett Cooper and David Peralta. The presence of that latter group in spring camp could afford the Cubs the opportunity to pick the optimal time to call up younger players.

All this adds up to what should be a major league roster on Opening Day that can compete in 2024 while also growing the group of players who will help the Cubs contend in the years to come. 

“We’re in a really good place,” Counsell said. “[We’re] uniquely positioned to still allow for development but have guys from the farm system really help the team this year.”

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