The obsequies are still being pronounced over the lifeless body of the 2023 Chicago Cubs, but there is little practical reason to mourn that corpse. The more useful exercise lies in assessing what needs to be done to prepare for 2024.
And the answer is pretty obvious.
It’s time for the Chicago Cubs’ vaunted farm system to start producing at a serious level.
The pattern for that has been laid, and within Chicago’s own division. This year alone, the Cincinnati Reds system spewed out emerging talent at the rate of close to one phenom a month. Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Andrew Abbott and Christian Encarnacion-Strand all arrived while a trade brought in another rookie, Will Benson.
Chicago’s farm system, long an underperforming one, began contributing in August when left-hander Jordan Wicks, a former first-round pick, was called up from Iowa. In seven starts, Wicks looked good enough to deserve a rotation spot next spring.
The Cubs need more of that. Specifically, they need 2022 first-rounder Cade Horton to make the big jump from Double-A, where he had a 2.65 ERA in 21 starts. Horton, a fireballer, would be the perfect complement to Wicks’ changeup.
Marcus Stroman, who has a player option for 2024, is expected to opt out and become a free agent. That’s OK; Stroman will be 33 and the Cubs have already gotten his best. They’d be better off pursuing, even if quixotically, Cody Bellinger, who hits the open market coming off a .307/.356/.525 slash line with the Cubs.
Whether they get Bellinger or not, the key to 2024 is likely to be rookie center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, the team’s No. 1 system project. At his best, Crow-Armstrong is a prototype leadoff hitter of the type the Cubs haven’t had since Dexter Fowler nearly a decade ago. He can run, he can field and he can hit; that’s what the scouting reports say anyway.
At his worst, Crow-Armstrong is what he looked like during the final weeks of the 2023 season, when he got a callup. That callup involved 19 plate appearances, 16 of which ended in an out and three in a base on balls. His first base hit will have to wait until 2024.
Among returning players, the pressure will be on Jameson Taillon. The Cubs signed Taillon to a four-year, $68 million deal to be a rotational anchor, and Taillon performed odiferously with an 8-10 record and 4.84 ERA.
Justin Steele will enter 2024 as the staff ace, but Taillon has to be a veteran, reliable number two if Chicago is to challenge in the NL Central.
On the outside chance that the Cubs can re-sign Bellinger, they can use him at first base or shift him back to center field if Crow-Armstrong proves he’s not ready for prime time. If they can’t re-sign Bellinger, they’ll be in the market for a power stroke, preferably one who plays a corner infield position.
The middle infield of shortstop Dansby Swanson and second baseman Nico Hoerner set a high defensive standard in 2023, although both could improve offensively. Catcher is an open question. The team has a club option on 36-year-old Yan Gomes, and Miguel Amaya hit just .215. That’s not good enough to lock down a permanent opportunity.
For better or worse, the corner outfield spots appeared to be set. In left, Ian Happ has three seasons and $61 million left on his deal. Happ batted .248 with a .791 OPS in 2023, stats that rank as suboptimal for a three-hole power guy.
The same could be said of Seiya Suzuki in right, who like Happ is locked in to a $59 million deal through 2026. In 2023 he hit .285 with a good .845 OPS but an unremarkable 2.7 WAR. For the Cubs to truly challenge in 2024, Happ and Suzuki must justify the organization’s faith in them as mid-order sticks.
The alternative is for a touted minor league bat — it could be Owen Caissie, Matt Merton or Alexander Canario — to step up. Merton and Canario have both gotten brief auditions, and while Canario’s very brief one went well Merton’s did not.
Christopher Morel has the power and personality to become a cult figure in 2024, but he must improve on his .247 average and 133 whiffs in 107 games.
The Cubs also face a decision on starter Kyle Hendricks, who will be 34 if he stays. Hendricks was 6-8 with a 3.74 ERA in 24 starts in 2023, and although beloved on the North Side as the Game 7 starter in the 2016 World Series, his stats are now ordinary. He is basically a free agent.
The problem is that, unless Cubs management thinks Horton is ready (he’s not projected to hit the big time until 2024), the rotation now shapes up as Steele, Wicks, Taillon, possibly a reinstated Javier Assad and God Only Knows.
Cubs management has one thing going for it this winter — money to spend. The team is only on the hook for $130 million in salaries to date, $54 million below the Opening Day 2023 payroll. Since there’s no reason for GM Carter Hawkins or team president Jed Hoyer to cut back, the assumption is they’ll be players on the market, either for Bellinger or the next Bellinger.