Jed Hoyer has his work cut out for him if he wants us to cover actual baseball and not just rumors and predictions for 2025. Hell, I’ve written more about an impending front office departure than I have any truly meaningful topic over the last few weeks. No offense to Craig Breslow, but his ongoing ties to the Red Sox don’t really make for the most interesting coverage.
With that in mind, I wanted to discuss something with more immediacy. Even if this amounts to little more than returning to a steak bone to scavenge some of the remaining bits of meat, I find value in getting aligned on this stuff. That isn’t to say we’re all going to agree on the order of the needs below, just that establishing benchmarks ahead of the offseason is worthwhile
Below are what I perceive to be the Cubs’ four biggest needs heading into next season, when they should be held accountable to the goal of winning the division and competing in the postseason.
Velo/whiffs in rotation
The lack of velocity in the rotation has been a concern for a long time now and it goes unaddressed every year. A 93.4 mph average fastball might have seemed pretty good at one point, but now it sees the Cubs ranked 26th in MLB. It gets worse when we limit the sample to starters, since the Cubs’ 92 mph average was tied with the Rockies for lowest in the game.
Cubs starters ranked 24th in MLB this past season with a 20.3% strikeout rate, while both their 7.78 K/9 and 9.7% swinging strike rates ranked 25th in MLB. League averages for those respective categories were 22.1%, 8.47, and 10.8%, so the Cubs were roughly 8-10% worse across the board. Failing to make marked improvements in these categories would be a grievous mistake.
I’d go so far as to say it should be a fireable offense given how long this has been a stated area of need.
The only problem is that, for all their improvements on the development front, the Cubs really don’t have internal options to help yet. Cade Horton throws harder than anyone currently in the running for the rotation, but he probably isn’t going to be ready for a starting role at the MLB level right out of the gate. Ben Brown likewise sits in the same 94-96 mph range, but he too will probably need more seasoning.
Even if you’re super optimistic about one or both of them and think they could push for a roster spot in the spring, Hoyer can’t afford to bank anything on that possibility. Put more bluntly, hope is a pretty shitty strategy. A much better plan would be to sign or trade for a legitimate hard-throwing starter who misses bats, then bring Horton, Brown, and maybe others along as relievers or spot starters if and when they’re ready.
Aaron Nola is getting a lot of hype right now and he boasts a career 10.01 K/9, but he’s also going to be looking for a huge deal in free agency. Extension talks with the Phillies went nowhere last winter (blurb near bottom of column) because the righty was reportedly “seeking an eight-year contract in excess of $200 million.” I can’t imagine the Cubs being willing to touch that with a 10-foot pole, especially when his 92.9 mph fastball appears to be declining ever so slightly.
Based on where they sit now with the rest of the rotation, I still really like the idea of trading for Tyler Glasnow. The obvious injury risks are a big red flag, but they also combine with his relatively high salary to decrease the trade cost. Having only one year on his deal mitigates some of those health concerns while also keeping options open for a future that should include more prospects coming up.
Other trade targets could include Logan Gilbert, Bryce Miller, or Michael Kopech, all of whom vary in terms of projected performance and prospect cost. Blake Snell will be a free agent following his presumed Cy Young campaign, but his price tag is going to be at the top of the market. Luis Severino will come much cheaper and has a fastball that sits 96-97, but he’s got his own injury issues and doesn’t miss enough bats to balance them out.
One way or the other, this is an area of need that can’t and shouldn’t be filled without a little discomfort when it comes to the price of doing business. Okay, I’m going to have to abbreviate these next three.
Ed. note: Not mentioned here specifically was the idea that the Cubs should trade Marcus Stroman if he chooses not to opt out of the third year of his deal. That frees up $21 million and a roster spot.
Hoyer said last October that the Cubs needed to add power. He repeated that need during his end-of-season press conference. Just like the pitching upgrade(s) laid out above, doing too little on this front yet again would be nothing short of willful malpractice. The big problem is that it’s not simply a matter of adding to the roster.
It’s entirely possible that the Cubs will need to replace three of their top five performers from 2023 in the areas of ISO and slugging percentage. The most obvious of those is Cody Bellinger, whose immaculate vibes will also need to be replicated if he’s not brought back. Patrick Wisdom is a candidate to be non-tendered and Jeimer Candelario is a free agent.
Those three accounted for 55 of the 196 total homers for a team that finished in the middle of the pack for longballs. That means Hoyer needs to go out and find a way to add maybe 80-90 homers, and he may have to do it before even knowing Bellinger’s ultimate decision. If the former MVP opts to wait on the market, the Cubs aren’t in a position to sit back patiently.
Some believe they view a potential trade for Pete Alonso as a fallback in case Bellinger signs elsewhere, but they need to be kicking the tires on that front early. There are other options, of course, but we may save a deeper dive for another time. The possibility exists that the Cubs will rely on internal improvements to give them the boost they need, though that may be more of a last resort.
Finally, we arrive at the unicorn who can check off several boxes at once: Shohei Ohtani. Even though he’ll miss a year of pitching following elbow surgery, the two-way player provides power on two fronts. He’s also the kind of bona fide superstar who could put butts in seats — the idea that Wrigley sells out no matter what is tired and dumb, and repeating it is pure ignorance — and sell Marquee subscriptions like none other.
If there’s one player Tom Ricketts should beg his father for the money to sign, it’s Ohtani.
In keeping with the established trend here, this is another area in which the Cubs knew they needed to be better and yet did almost nothing about it. Spending another winter looking for value won’t be enough to build a legitimate bullpen unless Hoyer indeed beefs up the rotation in a big way. While the relief corps can’t be neglected, having ample starting depth pushes more arms into the ‘pen and creates depth by default.
If the Cubs do end up running it back with pretty much the same rotation, however, they are going to need some serious firepower waiting beneath the bleachers.
This is more or less a continuation of the power conversation, largely because these are the only available positions. And since the three players noted above in that section played these three positions, I wanted to split this off for a little more context. Third base is really the only spot out there for Morel, who could really take off with a lot of work and an everyday role.
First base could be addressed in any number of ways, whether it’s with Bellinger, Alonso, or Mervis. Bellinger may prefer to play center, which could have him seeking other opportunities, but he doesn’t seem like someone who’d pass up a great fit if indeed the Cubs wanted to have him at first with Pete Crow-Armstrong in center. Mervis can DH even if another solution is found at first, so his power could factor regardless.
Another possibility here is Matt Chapman, who’s coming off of a rough second half with Toronto that should see his price tag falling from what it could have been before. That drop in performance scared some folks off, but maybe he’s in for a rebound just like Bellinger. Signing Chapman might put Morel’s future in jeopardy, though that could mean including the electric utility player in a trade for pitching.
I can’t imagine what kind of flow chart the front office has put together for the offseason, but I have to believe it’s even more convoluted than the Pepe Silvia conspiracy. My hope is that they’re planning to be aggressive when it comes to building out the roster. Being reactive and waiting on the market to take shape probably isn’t the best way to turn the Cubs into a legit winner.
Hoyer needs to go out and make a splash or three via trades and free agency, then he can figure out how the pieces need to fit together.