The Cubs were playoff contenders in 2023 despite a slow start, even eclipsing 90% in playoff odds in early September. Yet they collapsed down the stretch and missed the postseason by one game. They haven't been to the playoffs in a full season since 2018, though they appear ready to break through.
The first thing the Cubs did in the offseason was sign now-former Brewers manager Craig Counsell, making him the highest-paid skipper ever. , there's no way a team makes that kind of splash without planning on bigger things in the years ahead.
The reports on the rumor mill this offseason so far line up. The Cubs have been connected to the biggest free agents, including arguably the biggest of all time in Shohei Ohtani.
As things stand, the roster doesn't appear playoff ready. The best hitters in the lineup would be Nico Hoerner, Dansby Swanson, Ian Happ, Seiya Suzuki and possibly Christopher Morel. With Cody Bellinger sitting in free agency, the Cubs lack a true main character in the batting order (Swanson's headline status has to do with his defense and I'm talking offense only). Maybe Suzuki makes the leap next season, but let's use the World Series champs as an example: There's no Corey Seager here, nor are the best supporting characters up to the level of Marcus Semien or Adolis García at the plate.
Depending upon what happens with Morel, who has been rumored to be in trade talks, the Cubs' most obvious holes moving forward are at first base, third base and/or designated hitter. Center field is open to start 2023, but still ticketed for top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong.
On the mound, the departure of Marcus Stroman also leaves a void. The bullpen needs to get a lot better and deeper, but Cubs president Jed Hoyer doesn't like to spend big there and that won't change.
Here, we'll deal with the three biggest moves that the Cubs should make this offseason and that won't include the cheap bullpen additions Hoyer will be making throughout the offseason and likely regular season.
1. Sign Shohei Ohtani
I'm still not expecting it to happen (the Dodgers remain my prediction), but this is "three moves the Cubs should make." They should sign Ohtani.
Ohtani won't be pitching in 2024, but the rotation will still have holes after 2024 and he'll fit nicely at the top alongside lefty Justin Steele.
Offensively, Ohtani is the type of player who replaces whoever you already have at DH, but the Cubs don't really have a DH right now. It could be Morel, but they could try him at third, first or trade him.
2. Add another big bat
Obviously, every single team in baseball would love to just wave a magic wand and land two "big bats," but I just noted above the Cubs only or mostly have supporting cast members. Adding Ohtani obviously gives them a main character, but they need another strong supporting guy or even a top-flight slugger to truly make the lineup scary.
Matt Chapman isn't a stellar offensive player, but he can hit above average and provide power while playing exceptional third base in the field. Having Hoerner, Swanson and Chapman around the infield automatically makes the Cubs' pitching staff much better.
Justin Turner wouldn't be quite the defensive force Chapman would be, but he's a better hitter, even at age 39. He slashed .276/.345/.455 last season for the Red Sox and would be a short-term fill to give time to the Cubs' farm system to develop the next long-term third baseman (Matt Shaw?).
The big splashes here would be either bringing Bellinger back or trading for Juan Soto, Pete Alonso or José Ramírez. If it were Soto, the Cubs would probably combine that move with a trade of Ian Happ, either going back to the Padres or to a different team for bullpen help. Of course, if the Cubs miss on Ohtani, they could always just keep Happ and add Soto as the DH.
Alonso would be a near-perfect fit, but my hunch is the Mets extend him instead of trade him. Ramírez would be an amazing add, but there's no indication the Guardians are trying to trade him, nor is there any reason to believe at this point he'd waive his no-trade clause for any move. Consider that a pie-in-a-sky scenario.
Let's avoid Ohtani and Soto here to illustrate the overarching point. If the Cubs land, say, Soler and Turner, here's what the lineup could look like to start the season.
It's deep, as Happ and Morel make for pretty good 6-7 hitters, but, again, it seems light on main character types, doesn't it? Hence the focus on players like Ohtani, Soto and Alonso.
3. Acquire a frontline starting pitcher
Steele is a frontline starter, having established as much the past two seasons. Jameson Taillon will probably be better in 2024 than 2023, but he's a mid-rotation type. Kyle Hendricks is still worthy of being in a rotation, but he's a No. 3 at this point and it won't be long before he's a back-end guy. Drew Smyly shouldn't be more than depth. There's promise in youngsters Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks while some others (such as Ben Brown) aren't far away.
We're still talking about a team with playoff aspirations in 2024, though, so someone else needs to pair with Steele at the top.
The Rays are known to have made Tyler Glasnow available and he'd work. Would the White Sox trade Dylan Cease back? Are the Guardians going to make Shane Bieber available? The big free-agent prize would be Japanese import Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but the Cubs will have their hands full in a bidding war there. They could try to bring Stroman back. Maybe Lucas Giolito wants a one-year deal to re-establish his value the way Bellinger did. If so, he's already plenty familiar with Chicago. Lefties Jordan Montgomery and Eduardo Rodríguez are out there, though maybe they'll want a righty to pair with the southpaw Steele.
Hoyer has a full offseason of work ahead of him, even after landing one of the best managers in the game. That offseason of player acquisition needs to start with two big bats and one frontline starter before he starts filling in the depth elsewhere.