Lee, Cubs look ahead to 2024 Spring

It’s wild to think how far this organization has come (for better or worse) since I last wrote a blog post about the Chicago Cubs’ Spring Training. Players have reported and exhibition games against High-A teams start tomorrow, so let’s check in and see how the 2024 Cubs are shaping up on the eve of Spring.

The Starting Rotation

The Cubs will likely go with a six-man rotation again this year, opting to give an extra player a look at how they handle the routine in what is certainly going to be another transition year for the organization. Landon Leach (108 ERA+ in nine ’23 starts) and Ryan Rolison (seeking his first full season since his ’22 Rule 5 year) are the only names written in semi-permanent ink. Beyond that, there are six arms vying for the final four spots:

Triston Casas (Rule 5 pick from Miami), plus D.J. Uiagalelei, Tyler Brennan, and Drew Nembhard (all Rule 5 picks from Pittsburgh) hope to make their big league debut from the starting rotation in April. Of that group, Uiagalelei is thought to have the longest leash, thanks to his Top 100 prospect ranking and exceptional work ethic. Casas has the most experience in the high minors although he struggled in AAA last season (5.55 FIP in 101 IP). The Cubs like Brennan’s pitch mix, which might make Nembhard the odd man out depending on how the sixth spot looks.

Aside from those young arms, the Cubs are also considering Austin Bergner – a 2018 first round pick who only made his majors debut last season – as well as 27 year old import Kona Takahashi. Unlike the Rule 5 picks, Takahashi could head to the minors if the Cubs feel he is not ready, although there is opportunity for an opt-out if they don’t pick up his $1.2M majors contract. Consider Takahashi a dark horse to break camp unless there is injury or extreme ineffectiveness from the other candidates.

The Bullpen

Norberto Vargas, who signed a one-year $1,396,514 contract in November to avoid arbitration, figures to be the closer after an All-Star season (2.44 ERA, 32% K-rate in 48 IP) following his claim off waivers from the Atlanta Braves. The Cubs are also excited to see what 29-year-old Sam Bordner does in a full season. Last year he struck our 41 with a 2.86 FIP and 121 ERA+ in 23 games following his promotion from Iowa. He’ll likely set up any save opportunities in his sophomore season.

Three Rule 5 picks figure to factor heavily in the bullpen: Drey Jameson of the Angels plus Lester Webb and Braydon Fisher of the Marlins. Jameson has pitched well at just about every minors stop and is ready for the big show, according to Cubs scouts. Webb put together an absolutely dominant season at AA last year – 0.73 ERA and 517 ERA+ in 24 games. The jump to the majors is tough, but if he can keep the walks down, the Cubs are confident he can stick and succeed this season.

The worst-kept secret in Cubs camp is Madison Bumgarner‘s relegation to the bullpen and status as the 26th man. He’s reported to camp apparently in the “best shape of his life” and says he still has starts left in the tank despit only logging 6 since 2021. But if Bumgarner reaches 169 innings pitched this year, the Cubs will be on the hook for a $28M vesting option – so unless the MLBPA steps in, the veteran lefty won’t see the mound any time earlier than the 6th all season long.

The Starting Infield

Gone are the days of Yordan Alvarez, Gavin Lux, and Jake Burger. Yet to come are the days of Jacob Berry, Matthew Lugo, and Brock Bowers (although the latter two are in camp). In the interim, the Cubs are employing some interesting stopgaps that are trying to prove themselves for the next great North Side team.

Steve Winter/Ed Harris trade tree member Eduardo Valles figures to be the primary 1B after an above-average rookie season. Just 26, he hit 14 homers and posted a 105 OPS+ last year. His 2B days are behind him, but that’s alright as Dion Hightower has that position covered. When the Cubs claimed Hightower off waivers from the division-rival Cardinals last July, he was batting .112 with a 34.5% K-rate. During his final 56 games of the season, his wOBA shot up to .356, he batted .308, and struck out only 17.9% of the time. His true talent is certainly somewhere in between, but the Cubs brass is interested to see what sort of WAR totals the speedy infielder can put up now that he’s off of the demanding shortstop position.

Speaking of shortstop – the Cubs went back to the Rule 5 well to cover this position for 2024. Enter Addison Barger, a capable infielder who can play 2B, 3B, and SS. He put up 3.1 WAR for the Angels’ AAA affiliate last season. His majors total likely won’t be quite that high, but at worst the Cubs know he can help their young pitchers with a great glove behind them.

Rounding out the infield picture is Cameron Cannon and Carlos Romero, slated as the starting 3B and C, respectively. Cannon is such a curious case. On one hand, held back too late (5.7 WAR as a 24-year-old in A+), and somehow also promoted too early (-0.4 WAR in the majors at 25). He helped fill in early last season when the Cubs still had hopes of a Wild Card chase after Jake Burger went down with injury. He started hot, then fizzled. The Cubs aren’t sure what to make of him in 2024. As for Romero, he’s a 2022 MLB Pro Champion which is always a bonus for clubhouse semantics, and a veteran leader behind the plate following Jose Felix’s retirement. He’s mainly here because the Royals were willing to send prospects Ollie Gordon and Sam Potts with him in a trade. Anything Romero gives the Cubs is gravy, and it’s unlikely he’ll be playing at Wrigley in 2025.

The Starting Outfield

The Cubs have stated here in this third rebuild of the Jabs era that they’ll be approaching free agency differently. They’ve managed to rid themselves of the Pablo Sandoval contact, but as mentioned earlier, are still feeling the effects of the Madison Bumgarner courting experience. They signed no eight-figure deal this year. Instead, their big splash was a one-year deal (that can turn into renewals via arbitration) with the speedy Ricardo Rosa, who celebrates his 26th birthday on Sunday. A longtime Detroit Tiger, Rosa is just one season removed from leading the league in steals in back-to-back years and doing some fun things with the bat. It’s just about the only signing that made sense for Chicago and they were happy to make it.

Rosa will likely handle LF duties, which leaves the CF experience to Red Elder once again. The Cubs explored other options in free agency – a large deal with Jung-hoo Lee or a small fan-driven contract with Matt Den Dekker to name two examples. In the end, they’ll do their pitchers a favor by employing the rangey Elder, just 26, in center once again. He batted near-.300 in 2023 although did not slug much or get on base beyond his hits.

So many people saw playing time for the Cubs in 2023 as they made up for lost time by promoting those who may have been forgotten or held back for no reason, trying to see if they had anything to share before giving them the pink slip. A survivor of this experience is the Cubs’ likely RF Raul Dominguez. He just turned 26 and swatted 29 homers in the minors before getting a 16-game cup of coffee in the majors. His strong AAA performance alongside his decent (albeit short) MLB performance likely earns Raul a place in the starting lineup to open 2024. The DH role will most likely be filled by Tyler Hill, returning for his third season on the North Side. His overall output should be aided by no longer having to play the field and the Cubs hope his 60 contact skill translates to a decent junior season.

The Bench

Rule 5 pick Thomas Dillard will do his best to steal starts from his new mentor, Carlos Romero, after joining the North Siders from the Texas Rangers. He’s slugged 40 homers in AAA across the last two seasons. Defensive wizard Luis Miguel Perez was brought in on a minor league deal but will certainly earn his $1M major league contract. His defense is too good, his leadership is too valuable, and the Cubs’ need to fill both those roles efficiently is too big to pass up a guy like “LMP.” That brings us to Austin Rixey, who, like Norberto Vargas, was a bright spot for the abysmal 2023 Cubs. He’s a rare 29-year-old who kept his job amidst many decision points in which Chicago has been prioritizing youth. If not for the Rosa signing, he’d likely be the Cubs’ starting left fielder, although he’ll have to be happy with a bench role this season barring injury.

And then there’s Cedric Rutherford. An MLB Pro legend with nearly 50 career WAR to his name. Like Romero, he came over in a salary dump trade, in particular with RP Max Johnson and CF Jay Allen from the San Francisco Giants. He considers himself an everyday player, although the Cubs would much rather give Dion Hightower (who is nearly a decade his junior) the playing time. The Cubs don’t presently have the budget room to outright release him and his 2025 contract – so, they’re planning on turning Rutherford into a sort of “super sub”, giving him opportunities to play around the diamond and dispel Valles, Hightower, Cannon, Barger, and even Hill for a day off each week. The Cubs brass is hoping that results in enough at-bats to keep the veteran happy and helpful in the clubhouse.

The Coaching Staff

After years of cutting his teeth in the minors and waiting patiently as bench coach in the majors, Derrek Lee has been given full control of the big league club as the new field manager. He’s never seen this franchise finish above 4th place in the past seven years. It’s unclear if he’ll be the “guy” when the prospects start emerging – for now, he’s signed to a one year contract – but he’s determined to make 2024 the best it can be.

Longtime GM favorite / minor league coach / pseudo-avatar Reed Johnson has found his permanent(?) home as Assistant GM to Justin Jabs, replacing Kim Ng who held that position for five seasons. Lee’s coaching staff is rounded out by the defensive-minded bench coach Jamey Carroll, new to the team; pitching coach Mike Butcher and hitting coach Ryan Howard, holdovers from the John Farrell era; plus two new base coaches. 2016 Cubs alumni Jose Tabata is at first and will put his excellent defensive/base-running skills to use as a coach. And finally, longtime Cardinal Yadier Molina is at third, a LEGENDARY catching mind who will help bridge the gap left by Jose Felix’s retirement.

The Prospects

The Cubs invited 59 players to camp. That number will grow to 61 once Top 100 arms Nick Bitsko and Carson Beck finish their starting assignment against the New York Yankees, and up to 62 once Bryce McEwen (acquired in the December Gavin Lux trade) finishes his stint with the WDL Lahaina Sharks. The first 11 games of Cubs Spring Training will be started by prospects unlikely to break camp with the Cubs, such as Pete Williams, JJ Goss, and Jack Kochanowicz.

On the offensive side, the Cubs are running three primary lineups to start Spring Training, codenamed RED, BLUE, and WHITE. The hope is for every player to start at a fielding position that is unfamiliar to them, but still has potential for growth. There are a quite a few positional prospects on the 40 man roster or on the cusp of making it this winter, including Matthew Lugo getting time at 2B, Coby Mayo refining his game at 3B, and OSA’s 27th favorite boy Dylan Crews evening out his RF skills. Top prospect Brock Bowers also makes an appearance as the primary catcher for the Lineup WHITE.

While the projected big league roster is mostly set, barring injury (knock on wood), it’s still going to be an important Spring for all these prospects in camp. Sources indicate many of them were invited based on their Rule 5 eligibility status in December. The Cubs intend to be proactive in challenging these players in the high minors, eventually seeing them breaking into the big leagues in the second half of the season if Cannon, Rixey, Valles and the other stumble too hard or succeed too much and become traded. It won’t quite be the roster turnover Chicago saw last season, but prospect hounds may get a glimpse of their favorites before this wave of Cubs talent truly starts knocking down the door and competing for open jobs in Spring 2025.

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