The start of spring training brings with it a sense of optimism, but a pragmatic assessment of the Cubs’ situation reveals a highly imperfect roster. There are talented young players like Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ, both of whom the team is attempting to lock up long-term. Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins have been busy this offseason, spending nearly $300 million on a free-agent class highlighted by shortstop Dansby Swanson, but whether it’s enough to push them within reach of a division title is yet to be seen.
The National League Central has been ultra-competitive as of late, with the Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers all taking turns occupying the top spot. In order to reclaim the crown, the Cubs still need to make significant upgrades to key areas. Losing fan favorite Willson Contreras to St. Louis (gulp) leaves a gaping hole in the lineup that hasn’t been addressed. Defensive deficiencies aside, Contreras is considered a top-5 catcher in the league and offers a big upgrade over the aged Yadier Molina.
The Cubs filled the void with a combination of Tucker Barnhart and Yan Gomes, who they hope will make up for offensive inferiority with improved game-calling and defense. The organization appears to be banking on Miguel Amaya as the long-term solution, but injuries have slowed his development, and his ETA at Wrigley has been pushed back by at least a year.
The starting rotation looks solid on paper, though it lacks a true ace at this point and doesn’t have any of the flame-throwers that are so prevalent elsewhere. Marcus Stroman is probably the Opening Day starter, though Justin Steele has the makings of at least a No. 2 starter, and Jameson Taillon is working with a new slider that should elevate his performance. Drew Smyly and Adrian Sampson form a dependable back end, and Hayden Wesneski flashed serious potential during his time with the big club.
Still, the uncertainty surrounding Kyle Hendricks and that troublesome lack of power pitching would have been soothed had the Cubs invested in someone like Carlos Rodon. They’ve at least afforded themselves the flexibility of inserting Keegan Thompson and/or Adbert Alzolay into the mix, but the rotation lags behind that of the Brewers (Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta) and Cardinals (Jack Flaherty, Jordan Montgomery, Adam Wainwright).
The Cubs’ bullpen should be improved thanks to some veteran additions, but they lack a bonafide closer. Brad Boxberger or Michael Fulmer could fit the bill, and Codi Heuer presents another possibility for high-leverage innings when he returns from Tommy John rehab. Alzolay could also find himself pitching at the end of games not long after the organization viewed him as a big-time starter. He’s been better in relief, sporting an ERA of 2.32 compared to 5.19 as a starter, because he can cut it loose over shorter appearances.
One dark horse to keep an eye on is hard-throwing lefty Julian Merryweather, who the Cubs claimed off waivers from Toronto in mid-January. Despite showing good control with a fastball sitting in the upper 90s, he hasn’t racked up as many strikeouts as you would expect. If pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos can find an adjustment, Merryweather could be a lethal weapon out of the bullpen and potentially develop into an effective closer or setup man.
The good news for the Cubs is that some of their flaws may be somewhat papered over by the inactivity of their division rivals. The Cardinals (Contreras) and Brewers (Wade Miley) made only one signing apiece, while the Reds and Pirates continued their low-cost operations. The division is as winnable as ever this year, and the Cubs may not be done, whether it’s adding another reliever or maybe even buying at the trade deadline.
With another piece or two, particularly on the mound, we could see them take the first step toward putting themselves back in the playoff conversation.