What we’re hearing about the Cubs’ next steps after signing Cody Bellinger

MESA, Ariz. — Cody Bellinger is back in Cubbie Blue. An official announcement is still to come and a move to the 40-man roster will need to be made, but the Chicago Cubs finally feel complete after a long, drawn-out winter.

After a busy weekend around the Cubs complex in Mesa, here are some of the buzzworthy bits of information that have been gathered from various conversations around camp.

It’s likely that to make space on the roster, a pitcher will be moved. The Cubs currently value everyone on their 40-man roster and would prefer not to lose a player for nothing, so they are working to trade a pitcher away. It’s possible that it can’t come to fruition soon enough. But the hope seems to be that even if a pitcher is designated for assignment, they’ll be deep enough in negotiations that they can still move that player via trade.

With the addition of Bellinger, the Cubs are now pushing up against the luxury tax. In fact, when you factor in all the roster churn that happens over the course of the season, there is an understanding that they’re essentially over it. Last season, when their playoff odds were middling in July, they hedged by trying to stay under the luxury tax, making a small trade before the deadline to shed some payroll, sending Adrian Sampson and Manny Rodriguez to the Tampa Bay Rays. Money was a factor, but there were baseball reasons to do so as well, including wanting to get the best possible draft pick if Bellinger, who they eventually gave a qualifying offer to, had signed elsewhere.

This season, that doesn’t appear to be a concern. If they’re competing by the deadline, pushing even further over the first luxury tax threshold isn’t expected to keep them from improving the team. How far they’ll be willing to go over will be the more likely question they face. Of course, the opposite end of that is they fall out of contention before the deadline and will look to shed some expiring deals to get prospects and be under the first threshold, which is $237 million for 2024.

The Cubs will continue to look for upgrades to their roster during the spring, but the feeling around camp seems to be that this is their team. One could easily make the argument that any of the big remaining Scott Boras clients — Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Matt Chapman and J.D. Martinez — would make sense for this Cubs roster. Each would be an upgrade. But at some point, the budget becomes a factor.

They are also probably done adding to the bullpen. There was mutual interest between the team and Ryne Stanek, but his market hasn’t fallen enough that the Cubs would be willing to lose the roster flexibility they want to preserve with their bullpen. Most teams like to have a couple of relievers who are optionable over the course of the season. For the Cubs, this will allow them to shuttle players between Iowa and Chicago as they attempt to keep their relievers healthy and fresh throughout a 162-game season.

The group could really use repeat performances from last season’s three cogs — Adbert Alzolay, Julian Merryweather and Mark Leiter Jr. But they need youngsters to step up; Luke Little, Daniel Palencia and Ben Brown are the most obvious names. Free-agent signing Hector Neris and trade acquisition Yency Almonte are veterans in the group, there to provide some stability. There is some flexibility with probable depth starters which includes Hayden Wesneski, Javier Assad and Drew Smyly who all will likely help out of the bullpen at some point as well.

Ultimately, there is a clear awareness that the group lacks an obvious, dominant force at the backend. But this is a front office that doesn’t believe in giving big money over a long-term deal for a closer, so someone like Josh Hader and his $95 million price tag was never a serious consideration.

The Cubs liked the idea of potentially adding Chapman at third, but this winter they were hyper-aware of becoming too right-handed with their lineup. Without Bellinger, there was a real concern that there weren’t enough lefties in the lineup and an injury to someone like Ian Happ would have left them vulnerable.

There are certain elite offensive talents for whom handedness may not have been a factor, but the front office wanted to avoid building a lineup that could be so easily pitched to and game-planned against. A righty-heavy lineup would have made decisions too easy for opposing managers, who could have repeatedly sent their best righty relievers against the same pocket of hitters night after night. With the prevalence of sweepers and quality side-armers in the game, neutralizing the Cubs would have been a simple, push-button operation for opposing managers. Bellinger at least gives the opposing coaching staff something to think about.

The Cubs aren’t completely dismissive regarding concerns about Bellinger’s lack of hard contact and low expected stats from last season. It’s hard to deny looking at the numbers — or remembering back to all the bloop hits or even home runs that may not have left the yard on colder days or without the wind blowing out. Still, even with a potential drop in production, the Cubs believe there’s a floor with Bellinger with his defense and base-running skills. He may not replicate last season’s 134 wRC+, but even if there were a dip of 20 points, he’s still likely a 3.0 to 3.5 WAR player over a full season.

Not much should be read into the fact that the Cubs signed multiple veterans to minor-league deals. Outfielder David Peralta and first baseman Dominic Smith were both insurance moves in case they couldn’t re-sign Bellinger. Garrett Cooper seemed like an odd addition and a sign that perhaps another move could be coming. However, it simply appears to be the Cubs taking advantage of the fact that players are getting eager to sign and get into camp. At minimum, they’re each quality depth pieces to have around, Cooper in particular. All three have opt-outs, which are generally standard for veterans on minor-league deals.

(Top photo of Cody Bellinger: Michael McLoone / USA Today)

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