Given how the second half played out, it felt awfully likely Marcus Stroman would opt into the final year of his contract with the Cubs and hit the open market after the 2024 season. Instead, he decided to opt out, despite a brutal end to the season marred by injuries and ineffectiveness - and the decision has major implications for the team's offseason plans.
Early on in 2023, Stroman and Justin Steele carried the Cubs pitching staff. In his first seven starts, Stroman put up a 2.18 ERA and held opponents to a .199 average, while Steele posted a 1.45 ERA and matched Stroman, limiting opposing hitters to a minuscule .200 mark. Stroman just kept on rolling from there, dominating almost every time out through his first 16 starts.
As June wound down, the veteran right-hander boasted a 2.28 ERA and .191 opponent batting average. But things trended downhill from there, starting with a rough start against the Cardinals in the London Series. From that point on, Stroman made just 11 appearances, including 9 starts - and was hit hard regularly, evidenced by an 8.29 ERA (that admittedly came with a more palatable 4.23 FIP) and .316 opponent average.
Injuries shelved Stroman for the entire month of August and much of September. Late in the year, with the Cubs desperate to right the ship, he returned first as a reliever, then as a starter, but got very mixed results, to say the least.
Given the sour note his 2023 campaign ended on, the prevailing logic was, like I said, that Stroman would return via the $21 million player option for 2024. Instead, that money comes off the books and Jed Hoyer has a hole in his rotation, which already needed a shot in the arm even with him in the mix.
Cubs rotation sees a sharp drop-off without Marcus Stroman in the mix
Steele will be back to headline the rotation, but without Stroman, there's a sharp dropoff from there. Jameson Taillon will be back in for the second season of the four-year deal he signed last winter, hoping to be more the guy we saw in the second half (3.38 ERA from July 7 on), and it seems likelier than ever Kyle Hendricks will be back - either via an extension or his team option.
At this point, though, Hendricks needs to be viewed more as a back-of-the-rotation piece, rather than a third starter - at least if you have legitimate postseason aspirations. A mix of arms will get a look in spring, including Javier Assad, Jordan Wicks, Drew Smyly (assuming he doesn't opt out), Ben Brown and Cade Horton. The depth is there, but it's clear the Cubs need to look at a higher tier of starter now.
The Stroman opt-out decision means the chances of the Cubs adding a top-level starting pitcher climbs dramatically. That could come via trade, as we've talked about ad nauseum in regards to Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, or in free agency - with a plethora of options available, ranging from Aaron Nola and Yoshinobu Yamamoto to likely NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and October standout Jordan Montgomery.
A Stroman reunion can't be ruled out, either, but one way or another, Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins are going to be adding to this rotation in the months to come.