February 24, 2024

Do the Cubs have enough to beat their underwhelming projections? There’s still time to add

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and the Chicago Cubs don’t have a markedly better team than the one that missed last year’s playoffs by one game. There’s confidence in new manager Craig Counsell. There’s belief in the organization’s depth over a 162-game schedule. There’s hope for internal improvements and the next wave of prospects. But this overtime offseason period will come down to Jed Hoyer vs. Scott Boras.

Following the Cubs’ opportunistic, analytical approach to its logical conclusion means Hoyer’s front office has to stay open-minded about not only Cody Bellinger, but also Matt Chapman, Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery. Those four Boras clients represent the top remaining free agents. There are only a few teams that have the kind of resources, roster/payroll flexibility and competitive window to be a potential fit for each of those four players. As Counsell likes to say, it’s all about “solving for wins.”

Of course, it’s also been 14 months since Bellinger signed his pillow contract with the Cubs and the former MVP still doesn’t have a long-term deal. If the Cubs haven’t yet found common ground with Boras on Bellinger, a player who excelled at Wrigley Field, then it’s harder to see them suddenly jumping in to sign Snell, a two-time Cy Young Award winner without any ties to the organization.

Unlike Snell, Montgomery isn’t attached to a qualifying offer and wouldn’t cost draft-pick compensation. But this is also part of playing the waiting game: If the structure of a potential Montgomery contract starts to make sense to Hoyer’s group, then the Cubs likely wouldn’t be the only team interested in that deal.

Still, the Cubs aren’t necessarily done supplementing their pitching staff. Even Hoyer, while praising the team’s pitching depth at last month’s Cubs Convention, acknowledged some uncertainty around the starters: “I don’t want to say there’s questions, but certainly there is some variability in how that rotation produces.”

Hoyer’s track record shows that the Cubs usually close a few deals for additional pitchers in February. The Cubs recently showed interest in Jakob Junis, though they did not make a formal offer before the swingman signed a one-year, $7 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers. Ryne Stanek, a key member of the bullpen that helped the Houston Astros win the 2022 World Series, would make sense as a complementary piece.

So far, the projection models are not overly impressed. Both Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system and the FanGraphs ZiPS calculations project the Cubs to be a .500 team. Making the leap from 81 wins to a division title isn’t insurmountable in the National League Central. But it will require good health, a little luck, some best-case scenarios and simply spending more on the major-league product.

In general, public projection systems just aren’t that fond of the Cubs’ starting pitchers. Outside of the low walk totals they produce, much of what these systems value for pitchers — multiple years of strong production, strikeouts, groundballs — aren’t what stand out about the Cubs rotation.

Justin Steele was worth 4.9 WAR last season, according to FanGraphs. (Matt Dirksen / Getty Images)

Justin Steele’s projected WARP (BP’s version of WAR) total for the season (2.2) nearly doubles the next Cubs pitcher (Jameson Taillon, 1.2). The 99th percentile outcome for Steele has him at a 3.3 WARP. This, after he posted a 3.8 WARP last year. But he lacks much of a track record, so it makes sense for that to be the case with publicly available data.

The Cubs are likely much higher on Steele and Shota Imanaga. Twenty-two other Cubs pitchers, including Colten Brewer, Ben Leeper and Zac Leigh, project to equal or top Imanaga’s projected WARP of 0.1. If that comes to fruition, the Cubs may be lucky to make it to .500.

Marcus Stroman had his imperfections, but is the type of consistent on-field producer that allows a team — and projection systems — to feel confident about what they’ll get. Replacing him with Imanaga brings some uncertainty, and PECOTA in particular sees a likely outcome of an ERA around 5.00 with little room for variance due to expectations of severe home-run issues. The Cubs, however, are betting on upside that PECOTA doesn’t see.

There’s a belief that last season went about as bad as it could have for Jameson Taillon — especially in the first half — and a big bounceback is expected. There is cautious optimism about what Kyle Hendricks showed last season, as well as an acknowledgment that it may not work out nearly as well this year.

The Cubs are bullish on their young pitching. Still, there is an understanding of the risk they have in the rotation with the lack of a true ace and a reliance on so much youth. They wish they had more swing-and-miss in the group and a stud with a long track record of success at the front of the rotation. But they also believe this group is being undervalued by public projections. They trust their strong team defense and a solid group of pitching coaches will help maximize the performance of those pitchers.

They know this group could benefit from one more stabilizing force. Meaning while much of the external focus has been spent on adding to the offense, bulking up the rotation can’t be ruled out. Of course, continuing to invest in defense is one way to rationalize spending on Chapman, a two-time Platinum Glove winner and a four-time Gold Glove winner at third base who would also be a big upgrade offensively. Bellinger, a good defender in center field and at first base, would also help in both regards.

Depending on your perspective, the Cubs are either demonstrating prudence or lacking conviction. There are times when the Cubs appear to be focused on the best deals more than the best players, though their roster has enough question marks that they should be involved in all kinds of conversations. Staying in touch with agents, reading the markets and making a compelling offer before the deadline is how the Cubs signed Imanaga to a four-year, $53 million contract. Hiring Counsell and firing David Ross was a jaw-dropping moment that showed the Cubs can make big things happen. Having this much talent still left on the free-agent market — after failing to make the playoffs — is another opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.

(Top photo of Cody Bellinger: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)