The 6 biggest questions facing the Cubs as spring training begins

The 6 biggest questions facing the Cubs as spring training begins originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Cubs are starting to gather in Mesa for what feels like a hugely consequential spring training, with the club facing a slew of questions heading into the 2024 campaign.

The team has made plenty of headlines over the offseason, including with the hiring of Craig Counsell as manager and the acquisition of Shota Imanaga, but there are still plenty of things left to sort out as the team’s roster feels incomplete in mid-February.

Here are some of the biggest questions still facing the Cubs as they accelerate their preparations for the new season.

How will Craig Counsell adjust to his new job?

The biggest shock of the offseason came when the Cubs were able to hire manager Craig Counsell away from the Milwaukee Brewers, firing David Ross and signaling a new direction for the club.

As he takes the seat as the highest-paid manager in all of baseball, Counsell will face plenty of immediate pressure for a team that came up just short of a playoff berth in 2023. He’ll face challenges on numerous fronts, including for lineup construction and especially with bullpen management, something that bedeviled Ross down the stretch.

Those questions won’t get immediate answers, but the deployment of resources during the Cactus League slate could give some indications of what he’s thinking for the new year.

Will the Cubs make another splash in free agency?

Normally the big focus for Cubs fans heading into spring training is on the players who are in camp, but it can be argued that the biggest headline is the absence of outfielder Cody Bellinger.

Bellinger, who had a renaissance year for the Cubs in 2023, still remains a free agent, and although there’s been plenty of speculation about a reunion with the North Siders, the uncertainty casts a shadow over the goings on in Mesa.

After all, Bellinger can fill spots in both center field and first base, and though the Cubs have some options at both positions, none come close to the complete package of power hitter and Gold Glove-caliber defender that Bellinger can provide at both spots.

Aside from Bellinger, the team could always swoop in and sign another pitcher, with Jordan Montgomery and several other arms remaining available on the market, or even another corner infielder, with Matt Chapman still without a home for 2024.

Who will play third base?

To the point of Chapman, there is plenty of uncertainty at third base for the second consecutive season for the Cubs.

Most signs point to Christopher Morel getting a shot at more regular playing time at the position after a successful campaign in the Dominican winter leagues, but other players like Patrick Wisdom and Nick Madrigal still figure into the calculus at the spot as well.

How about first base?

First base was a position the Cubs threw a lot of contracts at, and none really panned out as Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer failed to grab a stranglehold on the spot.

In addition, Matt Mervis had a bit of struggle trying to secure the spot after a great season in the minor leagues in 2022, but he’ll still figure in the mix for 2024.

Also available at the spot will be new acquisition Michael Busch, who could provide another power bat in the lineup after ascending the prospect rankings during his run in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ system.

Which prospects will make the biggest impact in 2024?

Both Mervis and Busch figure to be candidates to make impacts in 2024, but there are several other potential contenders for impactful playing time among the crop of talented prospects the Cubs have amassed in recent years.

Highlighting that list is outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, who made his MLB debut and immediately flashed some serious leather in center field during the 2023 season. There are still questions about his development as a hitter, but he’s been touted as a five-tool player, and hopes are still high that he could become a potent weapon in the lineup in addition to being an incredible fielder.

Alex Canario is another position player that could potentially play a bigger role in Counsell’s lineup, having struggled to find playing time of any sort under Ross during the 2023 stretch run.

On the pitching side of things, there is a possibility the Cubs could end up getting some run out of highly-touted hurler Cade Horton this season, though Ben Brown and Jordan Wicks could also secure key positions in the rotation if they duplicate their successes from the 2023 season.

Which pitcher will back Justin Steele in team’s rotation?

The Cubs have a dynamic top-of-the-rotation guy in Justin Steele, but while they have a lot of attractive options elsewhere in the rotation, it’s unclear which pitcher will earn that spot as the menacing back-up to Steele in the mix.

It would seem the most likely candidates are Imanaga and Jameson Taillon. Imanaga will have to go through an adjustment period coming to the big leagues from the Korean league, but his stuff has scouts drooling and many experts predicting that he could end up becoming one of the best free agent signings of the offseason.

As for Taillon, he has to wash away the bad memories of the 2023 season with the Cubs, but he also showed some flashes during the second half of the campaign, giving the team hope that he could potentially live up to the contract he signed with the club.

Outside of those two, Kyle Hendricks has re-established himself as a consistent performer after a 3.74 ERA in 24 starts last season.

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