It might have understandably faded into the rearview mirror at this point, but the Chicago Cubs started the winter with a bang, a major acquisition that captured the baseball world’s attention.

It just wasn’t a player.

Two-and-a-half years removed from a rapid reboot and fresh off a promising 83-win season that fell just short of the playoffs, the maneuver to poach manager Craig Counsell from the rival Milwaukee Brewers mirrored the franchise’s incisive move for Joe Maddon almost a decade ago and appeared to portend bigger plans. But no further fireworks have appeared over Wrigley Field.

Since installing Counsell as skipper, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has signed left-handed starting pitcher Shota Imanaga and swung a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers for 26-year-old slugging infield prospect Michael Busch, who figures to slot into the major-league lineup immediately.

It’s not nothing, and not every successful offseason needs to involve big headlines and bigger Brinks trucks, but this particular Cubs plan is starting to feel like a half-hearted effort to get over the hump.

Team owner Tom Ricketts told reporters at the Cubs spring facility Monday that his current level of investment — a projected $205 million payroll for competitive balance tax purposes, which ranks 12th in MLB and eighth in the National League — “should be enough to win our division and be consistent every year.”

“I think Jed had a really good offseason,” Ricketts said. “We’ve added some parts that are going to be beneficial to the whole. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be favored for our division this year.”

Actual projection systems disagree. Forecasts at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus currently have the Cubs as an 81-win team with less than a 40% shot at the postseason, nearly neck-and-neck with the Brewers and Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central and decidedly behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

The offseason isn’t over, though, despite spring training games beginning this week. A quartet of the sport’s top free agents — dubbed the Boras Four because of their lingering availability and their agent, Scott Boras — remain on the market. That includes 2023 Cubs revelation Cody Bellinger, as well as third baseman Matt Chapman and starting pitchers Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery.

The question is whether one of the four most conspicuously unsigned free agents and the most conspicuously inactive contender will match up on a deal.

Let’s break down how each potential addition might alter the Cubs’ reality in 2024.

Cody Bellinger, Center Fielder

Bellinger, the biggest power threat on the 2023 Cubs, is an obvious place to start. The 2019 NL MVP’s undulating career took a dramatic upward swing during his one-year deal with the Cubs.

After registering a .203/.272/.376 across three discombobulated seasons from 2020-22, Bellinger recalibrated his approach for contact and logged a .307/.356/.525 line with 26 homers and 20 stolen bases.

Reports early in the offseason indicated that Bellinger was comfortable with the Cubs and very open to returning, but there are some notable reasons why he might not be the highest priority free agent, despite the club’s familiarity with him.

For one, the Cubs have top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong ready to contribute in center field. The return for Javier Baez during the 2021 trade deadline fire sale, Crow-Armstrong is a superlative defender in center field who got a cup of coffee in the majors last season.

Evaluators at Baseball Prospectus wrote this spring that he still needs to work on adding discipline at the plate, but with even moderate improvements — he won’t turn 22 until late March, for the record — he approximate a young Kevin Kiermaier. Combine that with part-time or fill-in contributions from returning veteran Mike Tauchman (114 RV+ in 2023), and maybe center field isn’t the Cubs’ most urgent need.

There’s also some reason to question whether Bellinger’s star-level rebound will have staying power. Those shiny top-line numbers did not fully compute under the hood. Bellinger’s 107 RV+ (raw value) was well behind Seiya Suzuki, for instance, who posted a 132 RV+ with lesser traditional statistics.

The discrepancy between Bellinger’s impact 2023 production and what the numbers say about his likely value stems from the fact that he just wasn’t hitting the ball that hard.

Remarkably enough, the 6-foot-4 masher, who looks every inch of it while standing upright in the box, was hitting a lot like Jose Altuve and Ozzie Albies last season. His 87 BIP+ was a telling sign that his power was derived more from well-placed balls in the air than true oomph. Bellinger’s 87.9 mph average exit velocity was well below average, and he wasn’t making the same level of contact (106 contact+) or pulling fly balls with the consistency that Altuve and Albies have in proving themselves as reliable 30-homer threats.

Bellinger season by season
(Highlighted marks indicate above MLB average)

Maybe that formula will continue to work, but it’s such a dramatic departure from how Bellinger succeeded earlier in his career that it raises red flags.

With a likely center field solution waiting in the wings, there’s risk that committing to Bellinger long-term creates a problem just as fast as it solves one.

Matt Chapman, Third Baseman

The more logical vacancy to address via free agency might actually be the hot corner. Chapman, who will turn 31 in April, could help bring order to the most unstable section of the Cubs roster: the corner infield positions.

Once a God-level defender at third base, Chapman now checks in more as “solidly above average,” but the defensive chops combined with a power-focused bat help Chapman soar over the bar for making a difference in this Cubs infield.

Right now, Counsell might be trotting out Nick Madrigal’s contact-heavy but punchless bat at third base on a regular basis. The slight-framed Madrigal has never made it to 300 plate appearances in a season, while Chapman has logged 500 or more five times. The backup plans at third quickly co-mingle with the first base situation, and all the options fall into the categories of unproven, limited or outright mediocre.

Busch, the new acquisition from the Dodgers, carries the most promise after batting .323 and bashing 27 homers at Triple-A last season. He figures to get the runway to win an everyday job at first base. Cubs standby Patrick Wisdom is on hand to man either corner spot, but his extreme strikeout rates are difficult to stomach, as is his .206 batting average against right-handed pitching over the past three seasons.

The explosive Christopher Morel has earned at-bats, and he’s trying out at third this spring after experiments all over the diamond have previously proven that his best position is likely designated hitter.

And unlike in center, the Cubs’ highly rated farm system doesn’t have any clear answers coming for third base — top 2023 draft pick Matt Shaw could wind up there, but has played a total of three professional games at the position.

Chapman’s profile at the plate stands diametrically opposed to Bellinger’s. Vulnerable to strikeouts because of a hole in his swing at the top of the strike zone, Chapman shows elite discipline (fourth in discipline+ in 2023) and his ability do damage when he does make contact rated near the top of the league last season (a 141.1 BIP+).

Overall, his 118 RV+ in 2023 would have ranked third on the Cubs behind Suzuki and Ian Happ, yet it outstripped his actual production (.240/.330/.424) because so many of his scalded fly balls went to the biggest part of the ballpark.

Still, a Chapman’s steady hand at third and the possibility of Wrigley Field helping him swing the pendulum toward overachieving offensively make him an attractive idea for the Cubs.

Blake Snell/Jordan Montgomery, Starting Pitchers

Imanaga, the Cubs’ biggest addition of the offseason, is joining the starting rotation and left-handed to boot, so perhaps fellow southpaws Snell and Montgomery are less likely pursuits. It’s still not clear, however, that Chicago’s rotation is set up for success.

First, Imanaga. The 30-year-old veteran had nothing left to prove in Japan’s NPB, but he’s a divisive talent coming over to MLB. Excellent breaking pitches and deception helped him rack up strikeouts in Japan that might bring to mind the stellar debut of New York Mets starter Kodai Senga, but Imanaga’s fastball only runs around 92 mph and he’s been prone to home run problems that could be far more damaging than Senga’s proclivity toward walks.

Imanaga has the stuff and the experience to adjust, but it’s more reasonable to expect a middle-of-the-rotation arm than an ace.

You could argue that middling label applies to too many Cubs starters. Last offseason’s marquee pitching addition, Jameson Taillon, struggled to a below-average 102 RV- in his first Chicago campaign that, frankly, wasn’t out of line with his most recent seasons despite the reputation built up earlier in his career. With or without the $68 million deal. it’s hard to project Taillon as anything better than a No. 4 starter for a contender.

Justin Steele, on the other hand, threw down an ace season in 2023. The late-blooming lefty bamboozled hitters with a unique fastball-slider combination and finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting. His two-pitch formula, which really expands into a more complicated picture because of how he manipulates his fastball, earned him an upper-echelon 81 RV+, but his elite contact management (88 BIP+) is a tougher skill to carry from year to year, so he hasn’t convinced projection systems that he can deliver that sort of season consistently.

Beyond those three arms, the Cubs will turn to an aging Kyle Hendricks and solid young arms such as Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks with relatively limited ceilings. If they believe in the upside of Steele (reasonable) and Imanaga (riskier), they probably envision having the best five-man rotation in a notably weak NL Central field, but they could still aim higher.

Snell certainly has questions to answer about how he will evolve and adjust with age, but his two-time Cy Young-winning peak is a level of quality the Cubs simply don’t have on the roster right now. Montgomery (3.20 ERA, 97 RV+ in 2023) elevated his profile by honing his “deathball” curve, and figures to slot into that precise zone of impact that may be vacant at Wrigley — the No. 2 starter.

There’s also another concern that should perhaps nudge the Cubs toward adding depth: Imanaga, like most Japanese pitchers, has been accustomed to working with more rest than the traditional five-man rotation provides. Senga started only three times on four days’ rest in 2023, logging a 4.61 ERA in that admittedly small sample. With five days’ rest, he put up a 3.04 ERA and in six starts with even more rest, he posted a 2.45 ERA.

Cubs GM Carter Hawkins said the team plans to stick with that five-man cadence, but injuries and performance issues are almost guaranteed to crop up with a starting rotation.

No one team is going to sign all of the Boras Four — it seems unlikely anyone will even sign two of them — but any one of these free agents could make a difference for Chicago. This is a team that is invested in winning, as Ricketts was quick to point out, but it’s not a team that should feel particularly confident in its chances of doing so in 2024.

The margins are small enough in the NL Central and NL wild-card picture, however, that any move for a star player could move the needle. Filling a mushy roster void with Chapman or raising the ceiling by injecting Bellinger or Montgomery into the mix could boost the Cubs’ likelihood of returning to the playoffs.

Maybe the range of options has in fact led them to drive a hard bargain and scoop up whichever player becomes most available. Maybe it will work.

But at some point soon, the Cubs’ need to ink one of the Boras Four ought to become more important than getting a good deal.

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