Chicago Cubs Play Dangerous Game: Manager vs. Best Player – Wittenmyer

Gordon Wittenmyer


Reds beat writer for Cincinnati Enquirer, co-host Cubs #ReKap podcast; formerly with Chicago Sun-Times.

PHOENIX — The Chicago Cubs got to spring training with a roster that objectively is not as good as the one they had when they finished last season one game behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for the final National League playoff spot.

If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about how the front office of this big-revenue franchise expects to improve in 2024, this does: Even if the Cubs wind up signing the big free agent everybody seems to think they should/will in the next week or so, that would mean an off-season that essentially preserved the roster’s status quo.

Because, of course, that would mean replacing departed free agent Cody Bellinger with a one-year-older Cody Bellinger after replacing departed free agent All-Star Marcus Stroman with $53 million Japanese veteran rookie Shota Imanaga.

In other words, the people running the team that should be the perennial bully in NL’s nerd division either don’t care enough about going for it in 2024 to put their muscle where the Cardinals’ and Brewers’ glass jaws are or …

Or they think the manager was the problem last year. And that this other manager is the difference.

And if either one of those is true, the biggest loser is the fan paying top dollar for a team that looked on the rise last year with promises of bigger and better this year.

The only question in this scenario is which would be the more egregious dereliction of front office duty — or at least the biggest risk for a team like the Cubs to take.

When it comes to the manager, it’s $40 million obvious that team president Jed Hoyer values former Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell much higher than he does his previous, hand-picked, front-office-groomed first-timer, David Ross.

But this ain’t Joe Maddon and a team with Jake Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo and newcomers Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero, Kris Bryant and, yes, David Ross.

It’s at least an uncertain process, if not a specious one to try to quantify the value of a manager in terms of some kind of wins-added value. David Ross didn’t suddenly become an idiot in his first opportunity to manage under normal circumstances from spring training through September; and as well regarded and respected as Counsell is throughout the game, he hasn’t exactly been able to turn water into wine — or even a Brewer into a pennant winner.

Baseball history is filled with examples of Hall of Fame managers who had losing seasons — from Connie Mack (overall losing record) to Bobby Cox (losing records four of his first five seasons across two teams).

It also includes managers with middling reputations or credentials who won World Series because they had lots of really, really good players — from Bob Lemon (1978 Yankees) to Ned Yost (2015 Royals).

That last point is the most salient one for this conversation.

Good, competent management is always important. But good players win games.

Hoyer opened camp this week by saying “the closer’s definitely warming up at this point” when it comes to how close it is to the end of the Cubs’ “offseason.”

And if that’s not a reference to some final stages of negotiations for Bellinger, then fans are back to wishing on prospects instead of stars as they head into play in a largely mediocre division that might be there for the taking with a more aggressive stance.

Especially for a team that added a $177 million shortstop and $68 million starting pitcher a year ago and took another step toward contending.

“We’ve added some really good players this winter,” said Hoyer, who suggested another might be added. 

“I do think we have a lot of young players and some young veteran players that I think have a chance to take real steps forward,” he said. “The most exciting thing for me is I feel like we have a deep roster and we have a deep roster of players that have a chance to continue to get better, and it gives me a lot of hope that we can accomplish this year what we couldn’t last year.”


If Hoyer’s actually willing to send the big-market Chicago freaking Cubs into the season with a platoon of unproven prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong and Michael Tauchman in center field instead of Bellinger and/or who-knows-what combination of role players at third base instead of available Gold Glove free agent Matt Chapman, then he’s playing a dangerous game of hope and upside projections when he should be stepping on NL Central throats.

The biggest problem with that way of thinking is that if he’s wrong, it’s the fans who pay. Again. In more ways than one.