Baseball Prospectus's annual PECOTA projections were released and there's a feeling of Déjà vu hanging in the air for the Chicago Cubs. Despite nearly making the playoffs last year on the back of an 83-win season while the division-winning Brewers entered sell mode, the Northsiders are still not seen as the favorite to win the National League Central. In fact, they're projected to be in a similar, if slightly better spot than last year - not great and in need of some bounces to be a legit contender.
There are a ton of caveats to that, but let's go over the numbers first before we break it down. As it stands, PECOTA places the Cubs in second place in the division behind the St. Louis Cardinals, though it's not quite as bleak as last year.
2024 National League Central Standing Projections via Baseball Prospectus PECOTA
- St. Louis Cardinals, 85.5-76.5
- Chicago Cubs, 80.2-81.8
- Milwaukee Brewers, 78.8-83.2
- Cincinnati Reds, 78.3-83.7
- Pittsburgh Pirates, 73-89
A below .500 record would simply not be good enough for the Cubs at this point in their rebuild, especially after barely missing what could've been their first playoff appearance since 2020. It is, however, a marked improvement over their 77-win projection from last year, a projection they significantly outperformed. By Pythagorean win/loss record, they were also closer to a 90-win team rather than an 83-win one.
There's certainly reason to believe the 2024 projection is a little light too. Although Cody Bellinger has yet to re-sign, the Cubs will start the season with Shota Imanaga likely to make up for the loss of Marcus Stroman and Michael Busch on board as a high-upside prospect ready to play at first base. Hector Neris also adds more certainty to a bullpen in need of help around Mark Leiter Jr., Adbert Alzolay, and Julian Merryweather. The team is also closer to getting meaningful contributions from their vaunted farm system, with Pete Crow-Armstrong and Jordan Wicks available early on while their top pitching prospect Cade Horton waits in the wings. The cherry on top, of course, is new manager Craig Counsell who was hired because the Cubs left wins on the table in 2023.
That doesn't mean Jed Hoyer has done enough though. While things aren't likely as bad as PECOTA says, it's hard to be confident when the team is given only a 31.2% chance to make the postseason and only a one percent increase in their World Series odds from last year (0.2% to 1.2%). It's not a good thing to be in a spot where the largest market franchise in the division STILL has to bank on prospects popping and high-variance players performing to their best outcomes to get over the playoff hump.
PECOTA projections highlight why the Cubs need to keep adding
There are two other, deeper reasons why these projections aren't all doom and gloom. For one, this division is the closest in all of baseball with only five games separating the Cubs and Cardinals. While St. Louis seems due for positive regression, especially with the addition of Sonny Gray, they appear as a far more beatable team than in years past after enduring their worst season since the 90s. Add to that a Brewers team that just traded away Corbin Burnes and Reds and Pirates teams with major questions, and it leaves the division wide open.
Adding to that, PECOTA also doesn't project for players who aren't already on the roster. Bringing back Bellinger or signing any other players that can make up for his .307/.356/.525 slash line (134 wRC+) and stellar glove would do a lot toward making this team a frontrunner in the Central. Adding another pricier piece, like Jordan Montgomery or Matt Chapman, seems unlikely, but would also make a ton of sense for the right deal.
Elsewhere around baseball, the Dodgers and Braves are baseball's best teams at a projected 101.1 and 100.7 wins respectively. The Cubs were never going to reach that level in 2024, but it's understandable to be frustrated that they aren't projecting to be more competitive. If anything, PECOTA's projections should be extra motivation to make that needle-moving addition.