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Offseason In Review: Chicago Cubs

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The Cubs retained Cody Bellinger at a bargain price, replaced Marcus Stroman, found a potential first base solution, and supplemented their bullpen – all while staying below the first competitive balance tax threshold.

Major League Signings

  • Cody Bellinger, CF/1B: three years, $80MM.  2025 and ’26 seasons are player options.
  • Shota Imanaga, SP: four years, $53MM.  2026 is a player option that triggers additional options.
  • Hector Neris, RP: one year, $9MM.  Includes $9MM club option for 2025

Options Exercised

Trades and Claims

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

Notable Losses

The Cubs’ offseason kicked off with an important choice by starting pitcher Marcus Stroman on November 4th: he decided to opt out of the remaining one year and $21MM left on his contract.  This created financial flexibility and a vacant rotation spot, making some sort of starting pitching addition feel inevitable.

The following day, the Cubs locked in a rotation spot by making the expected decision to exercise Kyle Hendricks’ $16.5MM club option.  They also picked up the $6MM option on catcher Yan Gomes.

Then the Cubs made a move few people saw coming: they brought in Craig Counsell as manager, which required the largest contract in MLB history for that job both in terms of total and average annual value.  David Ross was fired in the process.  Counsell had managed the Brewers for nearly nine years, taking them to the playoffs in five of the last six seasons.  Counsell is regarded as one of the game’s better managers, and he often succeeded despite below-average payrolls in Milwaukee.

The stunning Counsell-for-Ross move conjured memories of Theo Epstein’s opportunistic switch nine years prior from Rick Renteria to Joe Maddon.  The Cubs’ signature player acquisition that offseason was the signing of Jon Lester, ranked second on MLBTR’s top 50 free agents list.  After the Counsell hiring, it was natural to wonder if Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer would deliver an additional offseason prize such as Shohei Ohtani or Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

The Cubs did show interest in some of the offseason’s biggest names.  Reports suggest they made a real effort to sign Ohtani before he landed with the Dodgers on a heavily-deferred ten-year, $700MM deal, though the Cubs weren’t seemingly a finalist.  According to ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez and Jeff Passan, as Ohtani’s free agency drew to a close, agent Nez Balelo “proposed the same deal to at least three other teams,” the Giants, Blue Jays, and Angels.  As late as December 5th, Hoyer shot down a report that the Cubs’ optimism on Ohtani had waned, but it probably should have been waning around then.  The Cubs are not mentioned in that Gonzalez/Passan insider account of the signing.  Whether the Cubs dropped out due to an unwillingness to meet Ohtani’s asking price or due to his preference to play elsewhere remains unknown.

Though Hoyer saw Yamamoto on a September scouting trip to Japan, the Cubs were largely absent from reports about his offseason free agent pursuit.  The reporting on Yamamoto’s free agency provided no indication that the Cubs met with Yamamoto or made an offer.  It is known that both New York teams made strong offers to Yamamoto, who of course wound up joining Ohtani on the Dodgers.  There isn’t much indication that the Cubs could have reasonably won the bidding for Yamamoto, nor that they tried to.

Likewise, the Cubs may have had interest in then-Padres outfielder Juan Soto, but if so they kept it quiet in the rumor mill.  Soto differed from Ohtani and Yamamoto in that it wasn’t up to the player – that prize went to the team that made the best offer.  Soto was a bit of a tough fit for a Cubs team with Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki locked in at the outfield corners.

One major trade target that made ample sense was Tyler Glasnow of the Rays.  According to Ken Rosenthal and Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic, “the Cubs remained in the Glasnow talks until the end, but were not willing to make a comparable offer” to the Dodgers’ proposal of Ryan Pepiot and Jonny DeLuca.  Glasnow’s preferences also mattered.  As Rosenthal and Ardaya put it, “He effectively could rule out certain teams by telling [Rays president of baseball operations Erik] Neander he would only stay with them for one season before entering free agency.”  The Cubs probably could’ve offered enough to land Glasnow for 2024, but they would not necessarily have been able to sign him to an extension.

Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee was quietly on the Cubs’ radar as well, according to Patrick Mooney of The Athletic.  Like so many of this offseason’s big names, Lee wound up in the NL West.

As 2023 drew to a close, Cubs fans’ dreams of Ohtani, Yamamoto, Soto, or Glasnow had been dashed.  The team had added a managerial star, but nothing else.

A pair of key moves came within a three-day span in January.  First, the Cubs signed 30-year-old southpaw Shota Imanaga to a four-year, $53MM deal.  The team also owes a posting fee of at least $9.825MM to his former team, the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.  Imanaga will earn $23MM for his first two seasons with the Cubs, after which the team must decide whether to exercise a three-year, $57MM option covering his age 32-34 seasons.  If they do so, it’d bring Imanaga’s total to five years and $80MM, similar to preseason contract projections.  If the Cubs decline, Imanaga will have a $15MM player option for ’26.  If exercised, the Cubs will have to decide on two years and $42MM for 2027-28.  If the Cubs decline their first option, Imanaga exercises his ’26 player option, and the Cubs decline their 2027-28 option, the pitcher has another $15MM option for ’27.

It’s a fairly complicated structure that offers the Cubs some measure of protection as opposed to the $80MM guarantee a starter like Eduardo Rodriguez received.  Early returns on Imanaga suggest he can perform as a mid-rotation starter, in which case his contract represents a solid deal for the Cubs.  I don’t blame the Cubs for preferring Imanaga on his contract to Stroman at $21MM for one year or $37MM for two.

First base was a clear need for the Cubs, and they reportedly entertained a traditional solution in Rhys Hoskins as well as an interesting one in Josh Naylor.  Eventually, though, Hoyer made an addition no one saw coming by trading prospects for the Dodgers’ Michael Busch, as well as reliever Yency Almonte.  Busch, an MLB-ready 26-year-old rookie, comes with six years of control remaining.  He won’t even be paid an arbitration salary until 2027, and he’s under team control for a total of six more years.  If Busch develops into the above average hitter his scouting reports and Triple-A work suggest, this will become an inspired pickup by the Cubs.

The Cubs inked Hector Neris to a one-year deal in late January, at a $9MM salary a bit beyond Hoyer’s typical comfort zone for relievers.  At that point, the Cubs could have considered their offseason done.  They’d replaced Stroman, found a first base solution, and supplemented the bullpen.

Cody Bellinger has been conspicuously absent from this post thus far, and that’s because Bellinger reportedly sought $200MM or more on a long-term deal.  Back in November, I thought he’d get it, and not from the Cubs.  I also felt that the Cubs’ motivation on Bellinger would be limited, given the presence of slick-fielding center field prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong.  There were signs the Cubs lacked full confidence in running PCA out to begin the season, however.  Two, specifically: their interest in Jung Hoo Lee and Kevin Kiermaier.

So the Cubs hung back and remained opportunistic on Bellinger.  As late as February 19th, owner Tom Ricketts said, “There has been some discussions but it hasn’t become a negotiation yet,” calling out agent Scott Boras to get serious.  About a week later, Bellinger’s deal with the Cubs was done, at a mere $80MM guarantee over three years.  Yes, there’s downside risk in that Bellinger will only forgo his two opt-outs if he performs poorly.  But if he plays well again this year and opts out, the Cubs will have only committed $30MM.  The Bellinger signing lengthens the Cubs’ lineup and pushes Crow-Armstrong back to Triple-A.  Bellinger can also slide over to first base should circumstances warrant it.

Ricketts made his position on payroll clear in that February 19th interview: “We’re right there at CBT (Competitive Balance Tax) levels.  It’s kind of our natural place for us. That should be enough to win our division and be consistent every year.”  That was before the Bellinger signing; with him, the Cubs are estimated at about $234MM, only $3MM below the first CBT threshold to which Ricketts referred.

As the calendar turned to March, the Cubs were presented with a slew of opportunities to jump on further Boras surprise bargains and push the team from “should be enough to win our division” to “likely to win our division.”  Likely because of Ricketts’ unwillingness to push payroll past its current point (an estimated 10th in MLB), the Cubs passed on several big name free agents they very much could have used.

Matt Chapman was next off the board, signing a three-year, $54MM deal with the Giants that included a pair of opt-outs.  Chapman would have been a “nice-to-have” for the Cubs, plugging in at third base and pushing Christopher Morel mostly to the DH spot.  It’s possible Chapman’s comfort in the Bay Area meant the Cubs would have had to go higher than the Giants, however.  The Cubs’ current plan seems to be mixing and matching at third base with Morel, Nick Madrigal, and Patrick Wisdom.

The Giants also seized the opportunity to sign Blake Snell at two years and $62MM with an opt out.  Snell made a lot of sense at this price for the Cubs, though both he and Chapman would’ve required the Cubs to forfeit their second-round draft pick.  Jordan Montgomery remained on the market, however, and he would not require draft pick forfeiture.

The Cubs’ rotation, when everyone is healthy, will feature Justin Steele, Kyle Hendricks, Shota Imanaga, Jameson Taillon, and Jordan Wicks.  There is reason to believe this is not a collection of five 180-inning pitchers.  Javier Assad, Ben Brown, and Drew Smyly are additional options to cover the inevitable injuries, such as the current ones to Steele and Taillon.  Signing Montgomery to a one-year, $25MM deal and pushing everyone down a spot was an opportunity the Cubs should’ve jumped on.   Instead Montgomery landed with the Diamondbacks, a team Ricketts would like to emulate, because, “You don’t have to have the highest payroll or the biggest stars. If you’re playing well, anybody can beat anybody. I was happy for the Diamondbacks.”

If the Cubs face any kind of starting pitching depth problem this year, and Snell and Montgomery are useful pitchers, it will be pretty easy to point to their availability in March.  To be fair, the same can be said of many teams.

Once everyone is healthy, the Cubs’ rotation looks decent, and their offense looks fairly deep.  The club also features strong defense up the middle.  They’re right in the middle of an NL Central that currently has all five teams projecting for 80-82 wins.  For a lot of teams, that’s good enough.






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