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Can an improved Cubs team come without more big additions?

Ryan Herrera Avatar
February 14, 2024

MESA, Ariz. — After the Cubs’ September slide cost them a playoff spot and they went on replace David Ross as manager with Craig Counsell in November, many took it as a signal for a big offseason ahead.

Though president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer tried his best to temper expectations back at the GM Meetings — “I don’t think [hiring Counsell is] a signal that somehow we’re going to have the biggest and boldest offseason. If we do, it’s because things lined up for us,” Hoyer said at the time — fans were still plenty hopeful that more was coming.

We all know how the winter has gone since then. It took two months before the Cubs made Shota Imanaga ($53 million over four years) their first major addition to the roster. They’ve since added Michael Busch and Yency Almonte from the Dodgers via trade, and they signed Hector Neris to the backend of the bullpen.

In fairness, those additions can certainly help shore up some holes on the roster. But they aren’t quite the additions Cubs fans were clamoring for when the offseason began over three months ago.

At the Cubs Convention last month, Hoyer said the Cubs were in about the fourth or fifth inning of their offseason. On Wednesday, when asked to characterize where the team is at in the offseason now, Hoyer said, “The closer’s definitely warming up at this point.” That’s certainly not what fans want to hear right now, because Neris is the only big league addition made in between those statements.

But if you’re an optimist, here’s a spin zone: Even if it’s the bottom of the eighth and you’ve got the closer warming up, that doesn’t mean you can’t knock in some more runs before you bring him — or, even enough that you can turn to another reliever instead.

“There’s a lot of good free agents out there,” Hoyer said Wednesday, the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to spring training. “Certainly, it’s been a really late evolving offseason, and so every day we’re in contact with different free agents. We may well add one or more players to the roster.”

Former Cub Cody Bellinger headlines the group of bigger names still on the market. Though Bellinger is the one media members and fans are asking about around here, players like Matt Chapman and Jordan Montgomery would definitely be upgrades. There are a number of additions who could help this team improve upon its 2023 season.

Still, there’s no guarantee any of them actually become Cubs in the days or even weeks ahead. So, in the scenario where they don’t make any of those big additions, how can this team improve enough to actually make the postseason this time around?

If you listened to Hoyer, Counsell and general manager Carter Hawkins’ press conference Wednesday morning, their group of young players filled with potential is something they strongly feel will benefit the club.

“I’m excited about where we are as an organization,” Hoyer said. “I think that we have a lot of good, young veteran players on the team. I think we have a ton of young talent. I’m probably more excited for this spring than most springs, just because we have so much young talent in camp. That’s what’s really fun in this job is watching those guys play, watching those guys develop. Young players, young talent, that’s where the game is right now. That’s the currency of baseball. That’s the part of the organization that gives me the most confidence, and I’m excited to watch those guys every day this spring.”

“It’s a strength of the organization right now, and it is the best part of this camp,” Counsell added. “I know there’s a number of young players, one, that are already here but you know they have growth as big leaguers left, and then there’s a big group that these are important camps because of just their exposure to a bunch of major league players. … It is the game today. We have to have those players. That we have so many of them in this camp is a great place to start.”

As far as who Hoyer is referring to as “young veteran players,” that would include Justin Steele and Nico Hoerner.

Both had individual breakout seasons in 2023, with Steele finishing fifth in NL Cy Young voting and Hoerner earning his first career Gold Glove. But both are also relatively young either in their careers (Steele has only parts of three big league seasons under his belt) or in their age (Hoerner won’t turn 27 for another three months). It feels like both could still improve to the point they establish themselves as true foundational pieces for the future.

And then you have the group of players who are trying to take that Steele or Hoerner type of step forward. Though Hoyer didn’t single any players out by name, he did say “the hope is that we look back a year from now, and there’s five, six of those guys that have now established themselves as Cubs.”

If things go right, that group could include the likes of Busch, Pete Crow-Armstrong, Jordan Wicks and maybe even Ben Brown, Cade Horton and Matt Shaw.

Even still, that’s a lot of faith to have in the youth movement.

Of course, veterans like Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ, Kyle Hendricks and Yan Gomes will be around to help steer the ship. But without any other major additions to the roster, the pressure would then be on the Cubs’ young players to contribute in a big way in 2024.

If they do, perhaps we’ll be sitting here eight months from now saying Hoyer and Co. were right to have that kind of belief in what they have already.

“In my experience, the way teams overachieve and the way teams have special seasons is by having guys do things they weren’t projected to do,” Hoyer said. “We have a number of guys in this camp that I think have a chance to exceed expectations and make that step, and stacking those players on top of each other, that’s how you end up having a special season.”

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