A National League Central youth infusion means a 2024 division title won’t come easily for the Chicago Cubs

posted in: News | 0

The Chicago Cubs’ window of contention has been built around a core that can remain intact for the next three years.

If properly supplemented by their top prospects coming through the system, in addition to whichever impact talent the front office brings in this offseason through free agency or trades, the Cubs have an opportunity to reestablish dominance in the National League Central Division.

The Cubs need to add more power in the middle of their lineup and continue to bolster their pitching staff. A path exists on both fronts, and the market should start to see more movement following Friday’s news of Shohei Ohtani’s record deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers that reportedly defers $680 million of the $700 million contract to be paid out from 2034-43.

However, the timing of the Cubs’ expected rise coincides with the division as a whole getting stronger. While the Milwaukee Brewers were the only team to make the postseason in 2023 behind a 92-win division title, the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds were in the postseason hunt until the final weekend. The Pittsburgh Pirates were 11 games over .500 entering May and finished with 14 more wins than in 2022. St. Louis is coming off its worst season in 33 years, though it followed four consecutive playoff appearances and two division titles.

“The division’s getting better,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said last week at the MLB winter meetings. “I think the most important part: there’s a ton of young talent in the division. I think that’s a really cool thing for baseball. I think everybody in the division is taking steps forward.

“The young players have now accumulated at-bats, they have accumulated innings. There’s nothing that can replicate major-league at-bats, major-league innings, so the division just continues to get stronger. What you’re going to see is a lot of young players, ages 27 down, that are going to start to make significant improvements.”

Six fewer games against each division team, because of the balanced schedule MLB implemented in 2023, creates a little more urgency to play well versus NL Central teams, especially if the division is as competitive in 2024 as some believe.

“I’ve been in this division for a long, long time, well before I was managing here. It almost feels like no matter where a team is in the standings, you have to play your absolute best,” said Reds manager David Bell, who played four seasons with St. Louis and one with Milwaukee. “So that hasn’t changed, it’s only gotten stronger.

“I think going into this season it easily could be said that any of the five teams could have a great year and win the division. Somebody’s going to, but really, like, all five have a shot at it.”

The youth infusion within the NL Central goes beyond the talent that has reached the majors in the last year. MLB.com’s midseason farm system rankings had the Pirates, Brewers, Cubs and Reds in the Nos. 2-5 spots with each team featuring at least five players in their top-100 prospect rankings. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee future big-league success, and the mark of an annually competitive team relies on successfully integrating prospects into the majors while continuing their development.

Brewers manager Pat Murphy and Bell credited the job their organizations have done in helping prepare players for that jump to the big leagues.

“For those young people breaking in to try to help them understand the standards, help them understand you’re good enough, that’s why you’re here, but now here are the standards — it’s not enough to just want to be here, how do we sustain it and even grow,” Murphy said last week. “That’s where the staff comes in and helps out with that transition to helping them understand and be aware enough, these are your responsibilities, these are the standards, and I’m excited about that part of it. But we got a lot of young energy.”

The Reds had 16 players make their MLB debut in 2023, including five of their top prospects, most notably Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain and Christian Encarnacion-Strand. As the season progressed, it led to tough playing-time decisions for Bell.

“They did not seem like first-year players. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were very prepared,” Bell said last week. “A lot of it does speak to their character, for sure, and we’ve done a good job of identifying high-character people that we acquire and draft. But development is where our heart is, I would say. We love to be able to be there and help our players become the best they can be.”

Cubs manager Craig Counsell will be tasked with finding a way to integrate players like Alexander Canario, Pete Crow-Armstrong and any other prospects called up in-season. It can present a challenge with so many positions blocked by established players on the roster. Development doesn’t stop when a player reaches the majors. Counsell said he wants to support those players who make the transition and help them not feel like they have the weight of the world every day they come to the ballpark.

Regardless of who the Cubs acquire this offseason, Counsell will be charged with capitalizing on the organization’s talent as prospects earn call-ups.

“The norm is a massive struggle — that’s the norm — and I think if you come at it from that place, the problem is that expectations for those players are on the other side of the spectrum and that’s a hard thing for everybody to balance,” Counsell said at his introductory news conference last month.

“It’s a hard thing for the manager trying to win a game to balance, it’s a hard thing for the fans to balance, it’s a hard thing for all the player development staff. Then most of all, it’s hard for the player, so trying to create some empathy and some understanding with that for the players and just for the group is probably the most important thing to do.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.