Despite a valiant effort in the middle of July to save their season, the Chicago Cubs were officially eliminated from playoff contention. A 7-3 win by the Miami Marlins against the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched the Marlins ticket to the post-season, despite a 10-6 win by the Cubs against the Brewers Sept. 30.
Amazingly, it took until game 161 for the Cubs to be officially eliminated from playoff contention. This team that was starting Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini and Tucker Barnhart, sitting 10 games under .500 in the middle of June with thoughts of trading Cody Bellinger, Marcus Stroman and Kyle Hendricks. A miracle run of 15-4 from the end of July to the beginning of August put them in a position to make the playoffs (in a full season) for the first time since 2018. However, much like 2019 or 2021, a collapse doomed their season. This time it was a 6-11 stretch after sweeping the San Fransisco Giants Sept. 6, including two massive blown leads to the Atlanta Braves, which did the Cubs in.
Despite the collapse, there is plenty to be happy about as a Cubs fan from this year. Cody Bellinger looked like an MVP once he came back from injury in June, Justin Steele was deep into the Cy Young race, Javier Assad and Jordan Wicks looked great to carry the rotation without Marcus Stroman, Christopher Morel improved and Adbert Alzolay became a potential closer of the future.
While I am disappointed that this team won't be playing some October baseball, this season was much better than I thought it would be. This season let me fall in love with baseball and the Cubs all over again.
Even with all of the positives for this Cubs team, there is no guarantee that this roster will be the same heading into 2024. Will Bellinger and Marcus Stroman be back? Can they improve the bullpen depth? What is the long-term answer at Third Base? Will the Ricketts family allow Jed Hoyer to spend big money on this team in free agency?
Let's, for the sake of this piece, remove the last question from the equation and say that the Cubs can go out and get who they need to improve this roster. Here is my wishlist for the 2024 Cubs off-season to retake the NL Central and contend for a National League Pennant.
The Cubs have eight free agents to re-sign heading into the off-season, split into five pitchers and three hitters. Shane Greene was already designated for assignment and Brad Boxberger only pitched 20 innings in 22 games and had an ERA of 4.95 and has a mutual option for five million dollars. I fully expect the Cubs to decline that option and either let the former Brewer walk.
Now comes the mid-tier free agents. Micheal Fulmer was an unexpected gem when the Cubs signed him on a one-year deal worth $4 million. After an awful April and May, which saw his ERA sit at 7.36, he completely turned his season around once June hit. From his appearance on June 3 to his last appearance on Sept. 11, Fulmer threw 35 innings in which he had an ERA of 2.57, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.22 and only allowed hitters to hit .193 off of him. While Fulmer was put on the injured list twice in September, I think he is an important piece to bring back for the Cubs bullpen. Sportrac puts Fulmer's market value at around two years and $10 million for the soon-to-be 31-year-old. If the Cubs can get a contract like that or close to that for what Fulmer did, I would consider that a big win. Fulmer was a key cog in a very good Cubs bullpen throughout most of the second half of the season.
One other veteran I fully expect to return is catcher Yan Gomes. To say he was clutch was an understatement. With runners in scoring position, Gomes hit .280, with 47 of his 63 RBIs coming in those key situations. Gomes has a $6 million club option and I see no reason why the Cubs wouldn't pick that up. He is a solid defensive catcher who hits for average and has become a leader in the clubhouse. Gomes can also be a key mentor for up-and-coming catcher Miguel Amaya who will be 25 by the next season. The Cubs need someone like Gomes who is consistent and can be an X-Factor in a playoff series. Despite him being 37 by July of next year, I cannot see a world where Gomes isn't back in a Cubs uniform hitting clutch doubles like this one.
The last two players of this tier are the only two guys who played in Chicago during 2016: Kyle Hendricks and Jeimer Candelario. Starting with the "Candy Man," Candelario came over in a trade with the Washington Nationals at the deadline for LHP D.J. Herz and shortstop Kevin Made. The first month Candelario was with the Cubs was generational stuff, as he hit a line of .275/.337/.473 with three home runs and 12 RBIs. He also brought some defensive versatility, being able to play third base and first base and had a .984 fielding percentage in over 100 innings played with the Cubs. That all came crashing down in September, as Candelario was put on the injured list Sept. 11 and his hitting stats suffered before and after the back injury. In the 15 games he did play, the New York native only hit .152/.286/.391 with just five RBIs. How much of that was affected by the injury, I'm not sure, but I'm not sure if he can repeat the type of season he had with the Nationals and Cubs in August. Let's hope the time off will allow Candelario to get his back right and ready for the season. As for his status for the Cubs, with what I have planned, it would probably be best for Candelario to seek out a contract elsewhere, since he won't be a starter with the Cubs.
As for the last member of the 2016 World Series team in Hendricks, it's a difficult choice. I do not doubt that the Cubs will most likely decline his $16 million club option to save money and use it elsewhere. This is purely speculation, but considering he'll be 34 this December, the multiple injuries over the last two years, and the lack of production, it only makes sense. After coming off the IL to begin the season, Hendricks did seem to return to his 2020 and 2018 form with an ERA of 3.74 and 93 strikeouts in 137 innings. The Cubs did go 8-5 in Hendricks first 13 starts, with him only giving up more than three earned runs twice in that span. The last nine starts were a completely different story as the Cubs went 4-7, with Hendricks carrying an ERA of 4.22 and allowing a slash line of .275/.318/.425. With where his market value is projected at a one-year $9.8 million deal, I see the Cubs offering a contract similar to that to bring Hendricks aboard as either a fifth starter or long reliever. Hendricks has earned that right with his play in the first half of his past season, but what he means to the Cubs as a team and organization. The Cubs need the last World Champion standing.
Now come the big two, Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger. I'll get Stroman out of the way first since it's very clear what will happen with him. According to both Patrick Mooney and Bob Nightengale, after a rough second half of the season, they are expecting Stroman to take his $21 million option for 2024. It initially looked like Stroman would try to secure a much larger and longer contract with an incredible first half of 2023, carrying an ERA of 2.96, a WHIP of 1.11 and strikeouts per nine of 7.8. Things changed drastically in the second half as he suffered a blister to his thumb on his right hand, a hip injury which was followed by a rib injury, which led to a terrible second half on the field. Stroman's second-half ERA was a staggering 8.63 in eight games, giving up 23 earned runs in 24 innings of work. Just not the second half Stroman was looking for, but I'm confident that with time to fully heal from his injuries he can be closer to the first-half form.
Bellinger is a much different story. The former MVP and rookie of the year was non-tendered by the Dodgers after three down seasons following his MVP season. So, he found the Cubs who agreed to a two-year deal with a mutual option for 2024, essentially making it a one-year prove-it deal for Bellinger. It's safe to say that Bellinger more than proved himself in 2023 as after coming back from the injured list on June 15, "Belli," returned to his MVP form, posting a line of .321/.364/.538, an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .902 with 19 homer runs, 20 doubles, 77 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. The Scottsdale, Arizona native finished the year with a .307 batting average, 26 home runs, 97 RBIs, and an OPS+ of 133 (league average is 100). One of the most unexpected turnarounds in MLB history by an individual player and one that will get Bellinger paid. Nightengale predicted back in late July that Bellinger would be getting a contract worth 100-150 million dollars. Considering how he finished the season, I would expect a contract worth closer to $200 million and somewhere in the realm of seven years. Signing Bellinger is important not only for the success of the Cubs over the term of a new deal but what kind of message it sends to the team and the league. If Jed Hoyer and Tom Ricketts are serious about contending with the Braves, Dodgers and Phillies in the National League. Much like the Cubs signing Jon Lester and Jason Heyward back in 2015 and 2016, this would send the same message that this team is ready to compete. While it's still up in the air (especially with Scott Boras as Bellinger's agent) I think that Bellinger will be hitting "Belli Bombs," at Wrigley for the next seven years, if not longer.
There are a ton of quality free agents for the Cubs to sign, with three true superstars in Shohei Ohtani, Blake Snell and Bellinger. With Bellinger coming back, there are four players that I would love for the Cubs to bring on to fill massive needs on this Cubs roster. We'll start with the bullpen and add two pieces in LHP Wandy Peralta and RHP Joe Jimenez. Starting with Peralta, I have him taking the left-handed reliever spot of Drew Smyly, with the Cubs either buying him out or trading him elsewhere.
Peralta was one of the few bright spots for the Yankees last year, putting up a sparkling 2.83 ERA in 54 innings of work. The Dominican lefty fits perfectly with the Cubs philosophy when it comes to pitchers in that he induces a lot of ground balls and gets hitters to chase pitches. According to Baseball Savant, Peralta was in the 94th percentile in ground ball rate at 57.1% and his chase rate was in the 86th percentile at 32.5% with a nasty mix of a sinker, changeup, slider, and four-seam fastball. The Southpaw was outstanding against left-handed hitters holding them to a .138 batting average and 24 of his 51 strikeouts came against those hitters. I expect his contract to be somewhere in the realm of Matt Strahm's deal with the Phillies at two years and $15 million. I love everything about Peralta, except his walks per nine this year which sat at 5.0. I'm not too worried about his walks, considering the previous five seasons it was 3.8 or below, so I think he could easily return to his career average of 4.1.
The Cubs relied heavily on righty Mark Leiter Jr. to be the lefty specialist and he looked spent at the end of the year and Smyly was bad all year long. Adding Peralta will ease pressure off Leiter Jr. and the Cubs won't be relying on Smyly in clutch situations. With the likes of Freddie Freeman, Bryce Harper, Matt Olson and Christain Yelich, Perelta and Leiter Jr. will be a good 1-2 punch to face lefties in critical situations.
As for Jimenez, he's the exact opposite of play style compared to Peralta. Jimenez has a three-pitch mix of a 95mph fastball to go with a slider and change-up. He has a strikeout rate of 30.7% with just a walk rate of 5.7%, putting him in the 91st and 85th percentile in each of those categories respectively. The Cubs need another good late-innings pitcher besides Alzolay, Julian Merryweather and Jose Cuas and adding Jimenez makes Cuas good depth, which the Cubs sorely need after the raft of injuries they sustained this year. This would be the perfect time to strike as Jimenez is coming off the best season of his career, carrying a career-low 3.04 ERA in 56.1 innings, while striking out 73 hitters. The Puerto Rican right-hander will be just 29 years old by the time next season starts and a solid three to four-year deal will see the rest of his prime years for whoever can pry him away from the Atlanta Braves. A late-inning staff of Jimenez, Cuas, Merryweather and Alzolay will be a show to watch for Cubs fans if they can get him to sign on the dotted line for three years at around 5.7 million dollars per year.
The next two signings are the big ticket items for the free agent portion of the off-season. To sure up third base and make the Cubs defense even better, they will go north of the border to sign Matt Chapman away from the Toronto Blue Jays. Chapman has been an all-world defender at third base over his seven-year major league career. He has won three gold gloves, two platinum gloves and a Wilson Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. He isn't too shabby with the bat either, as he has four seasons with 24+ home runs and 68+ RBIs.
It was a tale of two halves for Chapman, as in the first half of the season, he seemed to be one of the best hitters in baseball to go along with his gold glove-caliber defense. Through the 88 games Chapman played, he had a hitting line of .259/.344/.463 with 12 home runs, 39 RBIs and an OPS+ of 113. Through Aug 12 he had 15 home runs, 49 RBIs, 35 doubles and had a line of .255/.346/.449. Then came an injury to his middle finger on his right hand due to a weight room accident on Aug. 13 and his stats fell off a cliff. From his injury to the end of the regular season, the former Oakland Athletic had a batting average of .163, an on-base percentage of .250, slugging .302, and had just two home runs and four doubles in the final 24 games. His struggles continued in the playoffs where he went 1-for-7 with a single, a walk and three strikeouts as the Blue Jays were swept in the Wild Card by the Minnesota Twins. To this point, Chapman has never won a playoff game in his career, going 0-6.
Even with all of those negatives, the Cubs should heavily consider him as their third baseman of the future. He'll only be 31 in April and there's a chance he can return to his 2019 All-Star self, where he had 36 round-trippers, 91 RBIs, and finished sixth in American League MVP voting. The Cubs will have to evaluate the severity of his finger injury to be comfortable with giving Chapman nearly 20 million dollars a season for six years. I think it is worth it because the Cubs third base position was a revolving door of players between Christoper Morel, Patrick Wisdom, Jeimer Candelario, and Nick Madrigal. While I am high on Morel as a starter and Madrigal grew as a defender, Chapman can bring the power Morel has, while bringing gold glove defense to the hot corner. The California native needs a change of scenery and with a chance to compete, I'd love to see Chapman playing third at Wrigley Field for six years at just over $100 million dollars.
The last big fish for the free agency period comes from the Land of the Rising Sun. To fill the pitching staff, the Cubs will go after the next Japanese sensation Yoshinobu Yamamoto. To say that Yamamoto is a superstar in the Japan Pacific League is a massive understatement. In his seven seasons in Japan, Yamamoto has compiled an ERA of 1.82, a WHIP of 0.93, and 9.2 strikeouts per nine in 897 innings of work. The phrase "video game numbers," gets thrown out a lot, but these numbers are something that feels like it would come out of a created player on MLB The Show. He has a deadly mix of a near 100mph fastball, a devastating "Yo-Yo," Curveball and a good splitter to boot. Rob Friedman of Fox Sports and Pitching Ninja on Twitter (or X) said Yamamoto reminds him of Pedro Martinez. A shorter guy at 5'10 with a good fastball, great off-speed pitches, and fantastic command of all of those pitches in his arsenal. If that wasn't enough, he's just 25 years old and already has two Sawamura Awards (the NPB version of the Cy Young Award).
There will be the usual characters bidding for his services like the Red Sox, Yankees, Giants, Mets, Phillies and Dodgers. If I had to give a prediction, I think the Phillies, Red Sox, Mets and Dodgers would be Yamamoto's best spots if he wants to be the ace of an MLB rotation. The Dodgers are dealing with a ton of injuries in their rotation in addition to the fact that Clayton Kershaw might retire after this year, the Phillies might lose Aaron Nola this off-season, the Mets need a front-line guy ahead of Kodai Senga and while the Sox have Chris Sale he is nowhere close to his elite self. However, I think the Cubs offer Yamamoto a chance to be the No. 2 guy behind Justin Steele and create one of the best rotations in baseball. With the production he's already put up and the fact that he's only 25 years old, so there is room for him to grow in the major leagues while just entering his prime. I would suspect his contract to be in the six-year, 170-190 million dollar range to acquire his services.
The Cubs are going to have to spend big to compete with the teams that are currently batting for a World Series so several contracts over $100 million are required. Yamamoto and Chapman are worth it as they fit the needs of Chicago and are good at their respective positions. I'm sure Chapman would love to have Dansby Swanson next to him defensively instead of Bo Bichette and Yamamoto would love to have Swanson, Chapman and Nico Hoerner behind him in the infield defensively.
If you haven't been living under a rock for the past few days, you know the Cubs have been heavily linked to Mets first basemen Pete Alonso. What makes this interesting is that the Mets slugger has one year until he is a free agent and he has yet to come to an extension with the Mets front office. Initially reported by Bruce Levine of 670 The Score in Chicago, that the Cubs are going to do "everything they can," to trade for the Mets slugger. Then just a day later, Jesse Rogers reported that Alonso was interested in playing for the Cubs.
While Alonso has no choice in where he goes, it makes it more likely that if Alonso were traded to the Cubs an extension would be more likely. Alonso is the perfect fit for the Cubs middle of the order, with hitting at least 36 home runs or more home runs in every full season of his career (he hit 16 home runs in 57 games in 2020, on pace for 45 home runs in a full season). Despite the high strikeout rate and low batting average, you can't scoff at 46 home runs and 118 RBIs, especially with guys who get on base in the Cubs lineup like Bellinger, Hoerner and Suzuki. While not the best defender in the world, there are days when you can use Alonso in the DH spot in the lineup and have Bellinger play first base, with the Cubs top prospect in Pete Crow-Armstrong roaming center field.
With all the wheeling and dealing done this off-season (by me and hopefully Jed Hoyer), here is the final active roster for the 2024 Chicago Cubs:
C: Yan Gomes/Miguel Amaya
1B: Pete Alonso/Cody Bellinger
2B: Nico Hoerner/Nick Madrigal
3B: Matt Chapman/Nick Madrigal/Christopher Morel
SS: Dansby Swanson/Nico Hoerner
LF: Ian Happ/Alexander Canario/Christopher Morel
CF: Cody Bellinger/Pete-Crow Armstrong/Mike Tauchman
RF: Seyia Suzuki/Alexander Canario/Mike Tauchman
DH: Christopher Morel/Pete Alonso
SP: Justin Steele
SP: Yoshinobu Yamamoto
SP: Marcus Stroman
SP: Jameson Taillon
SP: Jordan Wicks/Javier Assad
RP: Wandy Peralta/Luke Little (Little Starting in AAA Iowa)
RP: Javier Assad
RP: Joe Jimenez/Jose Cuas (Cuas starting in AAA Iowa)
RP: Micheal Fulmer/Daniel Palencia (Palencia starting in AAA Iowa)
RP: Julian Merryweather
RP: Mark Leiter Jr.
CP: Adbert Alzolay
This would be the best roster in the NL Central, bar none. The Brewers don't have this level of power hitting in their lineup and could be without either Brandon Woodruff or Corbin Burnes next year, the Cardinals and Reds (barring Aaron Nola and Jordan Montgomery signings) don't have this level of pitching and the Pirates are getting close, but not to level of competing in the NL Central. With this roster transformation, the Cubs would be battling for the second seed in the National League with the Dodgers or Diamondbacks.
While some of this seems like a total pipe dream (Yamamoto and Alonso), we have seen teams in the past bring in lots of talent a year after just falling short. The Cubs themselves did this after the 2015 season, bringing in Jason Heyward, John Lackey, and Ben Zobrist before resigning Dexter Fowler right before spring training. That team went on to win the World Series with big contributions on and off the field from all four of those players. While it isn't guaranteed that history will repeat itself in this fashion, the Cubs have a pattern of investing in a core they believe in and by all indications it seems like they do. Now we will just have to wait and see what happens this winter, but hopefully, this Cubs team will look much improved by Opening Day 2024.