Why Cubs are confident even without an MLB free agent splash

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

MESA, Ariz. -- When the Chicago Cubs made the first bold move of the MLB offseason, luring manager Craig Counsell from the rival Milwaukee Brewers with a $40 million contract in mid-November, many across the sport figured it could be the start of a winter spree on the North Side -- even though Jed Hoyer said that wouldn't necessarily be the case.

Fast forward to the start of spring training and it looks like the team's president of baseball operations might be right, as the roster looks very similar to the one that missed the playoffs by a single game last year. Sure, there were additions, like 30 year-old starter Shota Imanaga and 34 year-old reliever Hector Neris, but the biggest headlines have come from the moves the Cubs didn't make.

While they were mentioned as players for Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the Cubs didn't land either of the most coveted free agents on the market -- or any other elite level player. And to this point, they haven't been able to retain the one who patrolled center field at Wrigley Field last season either, as Cody Bellinger is still a free agent.

That's because, in part, their plan to compete revolves around promoting young players from their highly touted farm system (ranked No. 2 in MLB by ESPN's Kiley McDaniel) as much as opening their wallets for splashy veteran additions. So instead of cameras following every move made by a new star at spring training, the vibe at Sloan Park is about lauding an arriving wave of talent.

"We have a lot of young players and some young veteran players that I think have a chance to take real steps forward," Hoyer said last week. "The most exciting thing for me is I think we have a deep roster. And we have a deep roster of players that have a chance to continue to get better. I think that gives me a lot of hope that we can accomplish this year what we couldn't last year."

But the question is whether those young players arriving with big hype -- such as hitting prospects Owen Cassie and Pete Crow-Armstrong and pitchers Cade Horton and Ben Brown -- will really be ready to fill the holes Chicago needs to plug in 2024. Currently there are question marks in center field, at both corner-infield positions and throughout the pitching staff.

"I look back where we were a year ago and some of the players that have stepped forward and now we're considering those guys established big leaguers," Hoyer said, referencing All-Star Justin Steele. "The hope is we look a year from now and there are five to six of those guys that establish themselves as Cubs."

Despite that hope, there's still a lingering disappointment from falling just short of the postseason that's evident early in spring training, leaving players, such as second baseman Nico Hoerner, contemplating whether the Cubs are better now than they were last year.

"All of us are asking that question individually and as a group, and it's up to us to answer that as the season plays out," Hoerner said. "Any time you go too deep in predicting baseball, it's usually not very accurate. Obviously, you want the best possible team you can have on the diamond.

"There's still players out there, so I don't know what that will look like, but as far as the group that we have here now, I think we definitely have what we need to compete as well as make a lot of improvements internally."

Of course, the biggest improvement to the roster would come if Bellinger were to make a dramatic spring entrance announcing his return like Dexter Fowler did in 2016 -- but don't count on that happening anytime soon.

The Cubs and Bellinger's camp have been at a standstill for the entire offseason and nothing has changed, according to sources familiar with the situation. That doesn't mean a deal can't still happen, but it does show that the Cubs are willing to enter 2024 without the 2019 MVP and that it is extremely unlikely the team changes its stance on offering a massive deal -- especially considering the plan was always to transition to Crow-Armstrong in center. A shorter term stay with opt outs is always a possibility though, as the Cubs want to remain flexible as its young players mature into big leaguers.

But even if a Bellinger reunion never happens, the Cubs could also use the services of free agent third baseman Matt Chapman, and they've been linked to Miami Marlins starter Jesus Luzardo as a potential trade fit -- so additions aren't out of the question.

But it is getting late, and time may be running out. Hoyer said last month that they were only in the fourth or fifth inning of their offseason maneuvering, but he gave an update this past week that "the closer is warming up at this point."

If the door does close on a noteworthy last-minute free agent addition, Counsell will be counted on as the biggest difference-maker for the season ahead.

Widely regarded as one of the best managers, if not the best, in the sport, Counsell takes over a team that missed the playoffs despite a plus-96 run differential. His impact could be enough to limit the bad stretches -- like the one on offense in May or the string of September series losses -- that had the Cubs watching from home in October.

Early-season projections have Chicago on the outside of the playoffs again, but maybe those systems can't measure the combination of a new manager and a young hungry team with several players looking to break through. And if Counsell is able to do that -- bring together a young roster and make it a little bit better -- then perhaps nobody will remember the moves the Cubs didn't make this winter.

"In my experience, the way teams overachieve and have special seasons is by having guys do things they weren't projected to do," Counsell said. "We have a number of guys in this camp that have a chance to exceed expectations and make that step. That's how you end up having a special season."