Jed Hoyer and Tom Ricketts have both repeatedly stressed the fact the long-term success of the Cubs organization will be dictated by the health of its farm system. Their focus on that area has paid off in a big way over the last three years, with Chicago heading into the offseason with a consensus top 5 system.
In 2024, several of the team's top prospects figure to make an impact of some sort at the big league level - and finding regular opportunities for these players will be one of many challenges facing new Cubs manager Craig Counsell.
One of the big knocks on David Ross late in 2023 was his repeated insistence on prioritizing veterans over younger players, regardless of how they were performing. We saw it early in the year with regular ABs going to Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer and down the stretch when Alexander Canario and Pete Crow-Armstrong saw very limited action (36 combined PAs) as the team collapsed in September.
Crow-Armstrong, in particular, looked overmatched at the plate. But with the team desperately clinging to its postseason hopes, Ross had his young outfielders on a short leash. We can go back and forth over whether or not that was the right approach, but it's become one of the most familiar criticisms leveled against the former Cubs skipper since his firing.
Whether or not the Cubs come away with one of the biggest free agents or pull off a blockbuster, there's a lot riding on Counsell's ability to seamlessly integrate his younger players - knowing there are going to be growing pains in the process, even as the team focuses on winning.
It's on Craig Counsell to find the right matchups for young Cubs players
Assuming Cody Bellinger departs in free agency (not a certainty, but certainly possible), the Cubs could go into camp with Crow-Armstrong as the starting center fielder. If Canario or someone like Owen Caissie or Kevin Alcantara crack the big league roster, they'll rotate into the corner spots for Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki, or potentially see at-bats out of the DH spot.
The Cubs' outfield picture is crowded right now, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Hoyer use that depth to potentially shore up the rotation or add that badly-needed answer at first base via trade. Mike Tauchman, who played a key role for the team in 2023, will also be back - and Chicago will need to find at-bats for Christopher Morel, as well.
On the pitching side of things, it seems likely we'll get our first look at the team's top pitching prospects, Cade Horton and Ben Brown, at some point next year. Jordan Wicks impressed in the second half and will look to figure into the equation, as well. All that said, Hoyer needs to reinforce the bullpen with established arms - and could add a top-end starter, as well.
Counsell has long been lauded as one of the best bullpen managers in all of baseball - making him a perfect candidate to play the matchups and integrate the team's young arms into the gameplan, starting on Opening Day.
We're not playing MLB The Show with budgets turned off. You can't just throw cash at every problem on the roster. The Cubs know that - and they understand where mistakes were made during the team's last competitive window. Now, they'll look to work with their new manager to make sure their homegrown talent plays a key role in 2024 and beyond.