The Chicago Cubs barely missed the playoffs in 2023 after an unprecedented collapse down the stretch, and the team that took their wild card spot made it to the World Series.
So is this team good enough to make it to a World Series like the Arizona Diamondbacks did last year? Or better yet, are they good enough to actually win the World Series like the Texas Rangers, snapping one of the longest championship droughts in the game?
I’d argue yes… and no.
The Chicago Cubs will win the 2024 World Series because of the addition of manager Craig Counsell
Last season was a mess and that mess was predetermined when Jed Hoyer refused to spend on a bullpen while also having a manager that was unwilling to get creative with the relief arms at his disposal.
There hasn't been much of a change going into 2024 in terms of Hoyer’s willingness to spend on relievers. The Cubs have not signed a relief pitcher and they’ve watched Josh Hader, a player that Counsell knows well, sign with a smaller-market team on a multi-year deal, Aroldis Chapman sign with a division rival that is notoriously cheap and David Robertson sign a one-year deal with the reigning champs.
Beyond not adding a reliever, the Cubs no longer have Michael Fulmer, Codi Heuer, Brandon Hughes or Shane Greene under contract for next season.
So what is the difference between this season and last season?
The difference is Craig Counsell.
Absolutely no hate to former manager David Ross, but he was the wrong manager for the way that Hoyer had constructed the team. If Hoyer is going to pinch pennies, right or wrong, we have to have a manager that is willing to think outside the box and find wins.
Patrick Mooney recently wrote about Counsell over at the Athletic (subscription required), detailing a personal managerial philosophy centered around 'solving for wins' - a true small-market necessity rooted in his experience as a manager and player. Expect less bunting, playing the percentages and riding a bullpen hard under this new skipper.
It’s hard not to look at what Mooney had to say about him as an admonishment of David Ross in disguise as a compliment of Counsell. That being said, if you could look to one area the Cubs could have improved in and made the playoffs last season it would be either through bullpen construction or bullpen usage.
Hoyer isn't going anywhere. Nor is he about to dramatically shift his thinking on multi-year, high-dollar deals for relievers. But the hope is that Counsell will be more effective in how he deploys the tools in his toolbox and get more out of the group than Ross was capable of during his four years with the team. There's no one more adept at this than Counsell.