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Will the Cubs be a playoff team in 2024?

Ryan Herrera Avatar
March 28, 2024

A month ago, when Cody Bellinger and his camp pivoted from their original offseason ask and agreed to a contract that still fit what Bellinger wanted, it was the Cubs who finally landed the left-handed slugger’s services.

He had a great experience in his year on the North Side in 2023, and the Cubs loved having him around, on and off the field. Bellinger’s return put the finishing touch on the roster heading into 2024, and as he sat down for his re-introduction press conference inside the Cubs’ spring training complex, he made clear what his one big goal was now that he’d reunited with the group: Making the postseason.

“Ultimately, once we understood what was going on about it all, I was wanting to be here,” Bellinger said. “I did wanna come back to this team, and I did wanna do my best to help. I mean, we were so close last year. So close last year to becoming a playoff team, and that was a pretty important piece for me was to get back here. I wanna help bring this team to the playoffs.”

That’s the vibe that permeates throughout the clubhouse.

Last season, the Cubs put together a group that withstood a slide to 10 games under .500 in June, played their way back into playoff contention and finished a game back of the last two wild card teams.

They didn’t get there in the end, but that roster had a good mix of veteran leadership, eye-opening performances and breakout players establishing themselves as key pieces to the puzzle. This season, the group remains largely intact (at least in terms of who will be viewed as major contributors), and there’s a feeling around the Cubs that they have unfinished business.

“That’s it, honestly,” Bellinger said. “I mean, we were so close last year. Really got banged up towards the end and fought ’til the very end. We got so close, and for me to come back here with almost the same team, to experience playoffs in Chicago is something that I wanna do.”

Still, while it is a lot of the same group, there are differences from how the 2023 Cubs began.

Bellinger went from an unknown after a couple of down years with the Dodgers to being named the National League Comeback Player of the Year. Guys like Justin Steele and Nico Hoerner have proven themselves as impact players now. Seiya Suzuki finished with a scorching stretch in August and September after inconsistency and some injuries plagued his first year and a half in MLB.

That and more show that the group who ended 2023 isn’t the same one who started it. And now, after a full season of building a collective mindset, a collective identity and a collective mentality, they already have that established heading into a new year.

“You learn a lot going through a whole season, especially going through it with that group and then having the same group come back,” Kyle Hendricks said.” You’re able to lean on each other a lot and talk about the lessons you took from last year. What you did learn, what you’re gonna do different. It’s just the camaraderie I think and how close we are. In that simple mind, maybe some confidence built in from last year, too.”

Of course, the Cubs couldn’t go into 2024 without making some changes. They couldn’t just hope mostly the same group of guys could put it all together this year.

A bullpen that relied so heavily on three or four of relievers now has arms like Héctor Neris and Yency Almonte at its disposal. A rotation that lost Marcus Stroman to free agency now has Japanese southpaw Shota Imanaga. A lineup that hasn’t had an answer at third base is now giving Christopher Morel the opportunity to show he can be trusted at the hot corner.

Then you have the youngsters who really look ready to help the Cubs do more winning.

Michael Busch, a top-100 prospect who has just destroyed minor league pitching, is getting the chance to establish himself at first after being acquired from the Dodgers in January. Jordan Wicks, Luke Little and Miguel Amaya are opening the year in the rotation, in the bullpen and as the backup catcher, respectively. And the depth in the minor leagues with the likes of Pete Crow-Armstrong, Alexander Canario, Daniel Palencia and Hayden Wesneski — with Cade Horton and Matt Shaw possibly being ready later in the year — means they’ve got reserves who can contribute when called upon, too.

Again, on paper, this team doesn’t look vastly different from 2023. They also didn’t add as much as they could’ve, but the Cubs believe the additions they did make along with internal improvements will make this a better ballclub.

“I’ve seen it both ways, right, where people [might say], ‘We had a good thing going. Let’s just keep it going.’ It’s like, well, at some point, we still gotta improve,” Dansby Swanson said. “I feel like this offseason and so far [in spring], we’ve taken those steps in a bunch of different ways. I think that that’s the key thing is that guys that were here, guys that weren’t here, some of the young kids, we all understand what it is we’re actually going for and what we need to do to get there.”

Of course, arguably the biggest offseason addition was bringing in Craig Counsell to manage the team.

Considered among the best skippers in the game, Counsell is known for getting the most out of his teams, helping them overachieve what outsiders predict in the preseason. If anyone can take a similar Cubs group and help guide it to the postseason, it’s him.

But there’s still that big question about these Cubs: Is this a playoff team?

Projection systems like the one over at FanGraphs has the Cubs winning about 82 games. They’re given a 41.8 percent shot at making the playoffs. Those projections have them as a fringe postseason team at best.

Last year, while the Cubs outperformed preseason projections, the numbers said they should’ve been even better. In 2024, will they beat the projections again? And more importantly, will they play to a level where the numbers won’t say their record was worse than it should’ve been?

Ask Counsell, and he’d say all that stuff doesn’t matter. What happened last year, what the projections say this year — it doesn’t matter. It’s up to the Cubs to go win ballgames and get to where they want to be in the end.

“I mean, the season happens,” Counsell said. “We go through a season. This is why we play. You put a bunch of guys together, and it’s not last year. Last year, in a lot of senses, doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. It’s not gonna necessarily help us this year. It’s not gonna play the games for us, if it was good or bad. We gotta do what’s in front of us and worry about what’s in front of us.

“It’s a new group, man. That’s how I see it. It’s a new group, and every year is a new group. Every year, we figure out what happened [last year] and how it’s supposed to tell us what we’re gonna be, [but] we get to write the story. We’re gonna write the story about what this Cubs team is gonna be.”

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