Projecting A Bad Cubs Team But With Craig Counsell

What does a "bad" Cubs team look like with Counsell as manager?

The Chicago Cubs appeared to set the Major League Baseball offseason aflame when they announced the dismissal of manager David Ross and the subsequent hiring of Craig Counsell to the bench. The implications were many. For one, the hiring of a top baseball mind was a chance for him to flex his intellectual muscles. And maybe not in a way that he did in a smaller market. For another, the Cubs poached Counsell from a division rival. Most notably, though, it signaled to the baseball world that the team was ready to contend again.

The move to hand $40+ million over to Craig Counsell was an aggressive one. While the team had made some notable moves in previous offseasons, the idea of aggression is not one we’ve been accustomed to with the franchise in recent years. Especially given the market in which they played. But you don’t dismiss a manager under contract and hand a hefty sum over to a new one unless you plan to leap back into legitimate contention.


(Not) According to Plan


Naturally, the discussion in early November immediately pivoted to the bright things on the horizon for Chicago’s North Side squad. Of course, since that point, we’ve seen nothing of the sort. Shohei Ohtani is a Dodger. As is Tyler GlasnowJuan Soto is a Yankee. Even twice-former Cub Jeimer Candelario found a new home in Cincinnati. We don’t know what the Cubs have worked to accomplish behind the scenes, but we do know that the dominos haven’t remotely fallen their way.

To date, the Cubs’ notable signings have been exclusively of the minor league variety. Jorge Alfaro and Joe Hudson will provide catching depth. Thomas Pannone and Ethan Roberts will do the same for the bullpen. Depth is important, to be sure. But the Cubs are also currently worse off on paper than their team that faded down the stretch due to pitching burnout & lack of secondary offense (oversimplification).

The current shape this roster is taking is hardly what was expected when Craig Counsell was hired. The presumption was that the manager-who-does-more-with-less would be able to do more with more upon entering a larger market that should have limitless resources. An offseason doesn’t occur in a vacuum, of course. Nothing’s to say 2024 is indicative of the teams he’ll run beyond next year. Cody Bellinger could still return, also. Matt Chapman is still available. Rhys Hoskins has been heavily linked to Chicago. To say nothing of the trade market on either side of the ball. The offseason isn’t close to over.


Doomsday Scenario?


However, what if it was? What if the Cubs miss on Bellinger, Hoskins, Chapman, etc.? What if they can’t compensate on the trade market and instead choose to run it back with the current group and only replacement level additions for the remainder of the winter? These are, of course, silly, extreme, and, as such, ironic questions. Nonetheless, should a scenario such as the above play out, the attention will then shift heavily to the manager-who-does-more-with-less.

A rough projection of the 2024 Opening Day Chicago Cubs, as currently constructed, reads as follows (with projected fWAR):

That group is supplemented by a bench featuring Miles MastrobuoniMike Tauchman, and Patrick Wisdom, along with a handful of prospects (Alexander Canario among them).

On the pitching side, you’re looking at Justin Steele (3.3), Jameson Taillon (1.8), and Kyle Hendricks (1.4) as rotation locks. Drew SmylyJordan Wicks, Javier Assad, Ben Brown, and Hayden Wesneski make up depth options. Julian MerryweatherMark Leiter Jr., and Adbert Alzolay comprise the mainstays in relief.


Uncharted Territory?


Counsell’s worst-finishing teams in Milwaukee came in each of his first two years. He finished out 2015 at 61-76 after taking over from Ron Roenicke. In 2016, the Counsell-led Crew went 73-89. Since that point, none of Counsell’s Milwaukee teams finished under the .500 threshold (2020 notwithstanding).

We’re still a ways off from the release of some projection models. Over at FanGraphs, though, the depth charts currently anticipate a .485 winning percentage (around 78 wins). Only eight teams are projected to finish lower, including a pair from the National League Central (Cincinnati & Pittsburgh). That win total wouldn’t be Counsell’s worst, but it would represent his lowest since those first two seasons at the helm.

By the Cubs’ current projections, though, it’s tough not to be pessimistic. The 2015 Brewers had Ryan Braun finish over 3.0 fWAR and two others finish above 2.0 on the position player side. Seven players finished above average by wRC+. The 2016 squad had three position players over 3.0 fWAR and a handful over 1.5, with another seven on the positive side of the wRC+ threshold.

The group the Cubs are currently set to run out doesn’t even figure to reach that type of production. The projected WAR figures listed above don’t look great early (though it’s possible names like Morel or Crow-Armstrong could outplay their projection fairly easily). Of the eight regulars to hit above 100 in wRC+, Cody Bellinger remains a free agent and Jeimer Candelario has moved on. Mike Tauchman faded down the stretch, and Dansby Swanson couldn’t hold his offense up for more than a month at a time. It’s a roster that already needed help on the offensive side, and the subtraction of Bellinger has only made the need more glaring.

Of course, the pitching should be better than either of those two initial Brewer clubs. The 2015 team was led by Jimmy Nelson, Mike Fiers, and Taylor Jungmann combining for 5.2 fWAR. The 2016 club saw Zach Davies, Junior Guerra, and Matt Garza combine for 6.7 fWAR. Steele, Taillon, and Hendricks give them a stronger rotation than either early Milwaukee club had. If any of Wicks, Assad, Brown, and Wesneski can establish themselves as a legitimate piece of the rotation, it’s a group with large upside. Even without additions, it’s a deep group built to pitch in front of the Cubs’ excellent defense.

So while the offense will likely be bad without notable additions, the combination of pitch-to-contact, above-average defense, and Counsell’s mind should help to compensate some. The 78-ish win total does seem appropriate at this point. It’s not what one would have expected from the outset of hiring Craig Counsell, though.


Overreacting for the Sake of Overreacting 


The Chicago Cubs are the only team to not make a Major League signing this winter. It’s also still December and some notable names have yet to come off the free-agent market. And then there are the Pete Alonso’s of the world that could still be moved. There’s too much nuance to an offseason — or even the broader context of multiple winters — to call this one a failure with full confidence quite yet.

Nevertheless, we’re likely about to see Craig Counsell’s true worth as a manager. The impact & influence of a manager is still difficult to quantify. But the Cubs have gotten actively worse this winter. Especially on offense. The 2023 iteration of the squad was built to live on the margins. They had to play flawless baseball in order to garner wins. Even with the addition of a bat or two, the 2024 version looks very much the same. Very little power pitching, questionable offense, and above-average-to-elite defense. Counsell’s decision-making is going to be a key factor in whatever next year’s team accomplishes.

The 2024 Cubs likely won’t be Craig Counsell’s worst team. Their lineup may lack the impact that even those early Counsell teams had. Pitching, defense, and managerial tendencies could very well tell the story of the Chicago Cubs next season. Maybe then, at least, we’ll get a real sense of a manager’s impact in a very quantifiable way.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

One response to “Projecting A Bad Cubs Team But With Craig Counsell”

  1. Alfred N Godinez says:

    It is unimaginable that the Cubs will go into 2024 WITHOUT adding Bellinger.Seeing that they have announced an INCREASE in some of 2024’s seating price,THAT would be BOLD.
    After justifying SS Swanson’s 7-year, $177M deal, an 8-year, $240M deal for Bellinger seems FAIR. Morel’s been taking workouts at 3rd base this winter,and could be the starting 3rd baseman,with the homer-or-bust Patrick Wisdom at 1st base. In limited ABs last season,those two hitters mashed 47 dingers. 550 ABs each in 2024 should account for 60+ together. About right for the corner infield tandem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login