Buster Olney begins each of his excellent ESPN baseball podcasts with the bold assertion that “today will be better than yesterday.” For Chicago Cubs fans, “tomorrow will be better than today” probably hits closer to home. Despite their mystifying failure to trade Willson Contreras and their slightly less mystifying failure to move Ian Happ, the Cubs are – as anyone not employed in the front office will tell you – in the midst of a rebuild.
So today probably won’t be better than yesterday, not for a while anyway. But in still-to-be determined number of years, the Cubs will be competitive again. I’ve somewhat arbitrarily chosen 2026, because it is far enough in the future for the front office to have assembled a competitive team, yet is still within the duration of Seiya Suzuki’s current contract (which runs through 2026). What might that lineup look like?
1. Nico Hoerner – SS
Nico Hoerner is developing into something approximating a classic leadoff hitter. He hits for average, gets on base a solid amount of the time, and doesn’t whiff much. He also has decent speed: Hoerner’s 12 steals put him in MLB’s top 30, and he’s only been caught once.
For the moment, Hoerner seems to be warding off the Cristian Hernandez challenge at short. Hoerner is sixth overall in Outs Above Average, and second among shortstops. If he keeps this up it’s unlikely the front office would push him out of the way for someone else, even if Hernandez’ bat develops into a mighty pitchslayer. Nick Madrigal is now the guy looking over his shoulder at Hernandez.
2. Pete Crow-Armstrong – CF
Injuries may have delayed Pete Crow-Armstrong’s progress, but not any longer. He treated A-level pitchers with supreme disdain, slashing .354/.443/.557 with an eagle-eyed 18 percent K rate. The discipline has vanished, presumably temporarily, at high-A. but he’s still only 20. Reports on his fielding are excellent; he profiles as an above-average center fielder. He has some competition in the system (I’m lookin’ at you Brennen Davis and Christopher Morel) but he’s likely to be the best of the bunch in the big pasture.
I have him batting second because I’m setting up the lineup to alternate righties and lefties to some extent; this is generally a right-handed bunch. More teams today are putting their best hitter second, but I went with the retro Daily Double approach because both Hoerner and PCA can create havoc on the basepaths.
3. Seiya Suzuki – RF
This is why they pay the man: to be the fulcrum of the next Cubs pennant contending team. Seiya Suzuki will be 32 in 2026, so we can expect some of his blazing speed to simmer a bit, but he will have had three more full seasons to study major league pitching and take advantage of the modern player development resources the Cubs can provide. A flameout is possible, of course, and the system has outfield depth, but Suzuzki’s continued success will allow Chicago to put that depth to other uses, including trades.
4. Rowdy Tellez – 1B
If you scroll down MLB Pipeline’s list of Cubs Top 30 prospects, you get to a first baseman … never. It’s possible a champion will emerge from the smoke-shrouded battlefields of the minor leagues, but more likely the Cubs will have to go outside the organization.
Rowdy Tellez has turned himself into a solid offensive option at first (a 116 wRC+ as of this writing) and hits free agency after the 2025 season. Milwaukee, his current employer, could extend him but probably won’t because, well, they’re the Brewers. The Cubs, as has been noted elsewhere, have a lot of coins in their couch cushions – they’ll be able to spare a few for Tellez.
5. Brennen Davis – LF
He has to play somewhere, and I don’t see him out-gloving PCA or Suzuki, at least on a daily basis. so left field it is. Davis remains the Cubs top prospect according to both MLB Pipeline and Fangraphs’ Roster Resource despite being devoured by strikeouts at Triple-A. That may have been down to a nasty back condition that surgery has now repaired. The newly loquacious Jed Hoyer has indicated Davis probably won’t be in The Show until 2023, but he has resumed baseball activities and should get to take some whacks in the friendly confines of the Arizona Fall League.
Consider the last 10 World Series winners, leaving aside the abbreviated 2020 season. Eight of them had at least one player with at least 6.0 bWAR. If you look up and down this hypothetical lineup there aren’t a lot of candidates for that level of production. Right now Suzuki and Davis look like the most likely, so there could still be a lot of pressure on Davis even if he does get to play a less difficult defensive position.
6. Will Smith – C
The Cubs have three catching prospects in their MLB Pipeline top 30, but all are fairly long shots to become above average regulars. Smith becomes a free agent after the 2025 season, and while the Dodgers might extend him, he’ll be 32 then. Catchers famously don’t age well, though I’m guessing that’s less true now than in days of yore, simply because everyone ages better in the majors now. But I don’t see the Dodgers throwing a huge amount of cash at an aging catcher, so maybe the Cubs can.
Sure, it would be a risky investment, but it’s also risky to put punchless Martin Maldonado types behind the plate, a risk that will only grow with the introduction of an automated strike zone that renders the pitch-framing “skill” largely meaningless. Teams that spot their opponents outs deserve to be punished. Better to try to find some offense – any offense – at the position, even it means paying for some unproductive years down the line. And as the Cubs have demonstrated this year, rotating a good offensive catcher through the DH slot with some regularity can keep his legs fresher and his bruises less numerous.
All this said, I will admit that from six down to nine, this lineup goes from “speculative” to “hallucinatory.”
7. Kevin Alcantara – DH
When Kevin Alcantara walks by, fallen leaves tremble because the dude just rakes. He’s eighth in the Carolina League with 12 homers, good for fourth among Carolina League teenagers. Looking at his scouting grades, he has 55 Power; only Davis in the Cubs system has more. Like Davis (and Crow-Armstrong, for that matter) Alcantara will have to cut down on the Ks. He’s currently at 25 percent, not in and of itself a career killer, but a number that would surely rise when he hits the majors.
Alcantara has played in center and right this year. Scouts think that his big frame will eventually push him to right, and it seems the Cubs have better candidates in the system to patrol center. But don’t think by putting him at DH in this lineup I’m condemning him as a positionless bat. The DH slot today isn’t a “position” any longer: teams are moving away from having one guy take almost all of those plate appearances. I imagine Alcantara would rotate through the position, along with other guys in this lineup as well as bench players. In this hypothetical lineup Alcantara would get numerous starts in center and right.
8. Cristian Hernandez – 2B
Cristian Hernandez can do it all, at least if you believe the scouts. But he’s only 18 and baseball is hard. He has just a .687 OPS in the Arizona Complex League, striking out about four times as much as he walks. He has five steals in eight attempts, which is okay but suboptimal in today’s game.
But he’s only 18 and baseball is hard. His upside is incredible, and by 2026 he might be ready for The Show as an agile, power hitting middle infielder. Hernandez may be the third name in this lineup that has a 6.0 WAR season in him, but I doubt that will be the 2026 season.
Madrigal could still be around; 2026 is his last year of arbitration eligibility. He provides some insurance should Hernandez fall short. I like him and want him to succeed, but I’m guessing the Cubs organization wants Hernandez to win this battle.
9. James Triantos – 3B
MLB Pipeline lists him as a “2B/SS” but Fangraphs has him at third, which is indeed where he has played every inning this season at Class-A Myrtle Beach. Just a year older than Hernandez, Triantos has less power but more contact, as shown in his impressive 17.9 percent K rate, and less impressive .116 ISO. A solid defender who could advance quickly, Triantos will arrive a year before Hernandez, according to MLB Pipeline. He’s showing good stolen base ability this season, which combined with his good contact ability could eventually put him at the top rather than the bottom of the lineup.
Morel has a shot at claiming either second or third, but I think he’s more likely to become a Zobristian super-sub. However, his nearly 30 percent K rate continues to be a concern. The same can be said for Nelson Velazquez, who, unlike Morel, can only play the outfield, and therefore has a more precarious hold on a roster spot. For all the talk of the Cubs’ Pitch Lab, they could use a Swing Lab as well: many of the guys discussed in this post need to shave a few points off of their K rates.
So this is the lineup the Cubs will run out there in 2026. What about the pitching staff? We’ll look at that soon.