The current Chicago Cubs roster comprises several popular players, former All-Stars, gold glove winners, and Cy Young Award candidates. Still, mostly it is known for the uncertainty of what is to come in 2021. Despite winning the National League Central division in the trimmed 2020 season with a 34-26 record, three games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, several core members of the club could be on their way out of Chicago. While cornerstones of the Cubs lineup may change heading into 2021, the team’s veteran pitching staff will have a new look, as Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Tyler Chatwood have left via free agency.
The bullpen caused some panic among some in the fan base, but despite a turbulent beginning to 2020, Craig Kimbrel appeared to fix his issues, and the Cubs as a unit ended the year with a solid group of relievers. However, similar to the starting rotation, changes will indeed occur this offseason. Ryan Tepera, who was second on the team in innings pitched as a reliever, was non-tendered in December, making him a free agent. In addition to Tepera’s exit, right-handed pitcher Jeremy Jeffress is available in free agency after leading the 2020 Cubs’ bullpen in appearances with 22, inning pitches at 23.1 IP, and saves with eight. The bullpen also faces uncertainty when it comes to reliable left-handed relievers. Kyle Ryan was injured and ineffective in 2020, and trades for lefties weren’t game-changers. Fans are hoping left-handed pitching prospect Burl Carraway can emerge in 2021 and possibly turn into one of the best left-handed relievers in all of baseball.
Although rumors continue to circulate about potential trades of Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and Javier Baez, the first major change to the Cubs’ roster was the team deciding to let go of former first-round picks Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. at the tender deadline in early December. The Cubs front office not only has to replace Schwarber’s production, as he’s been the primary starting left fielder since 2017, but letting Almora walk as well means the roster’s MLB outfield depth is severely lacking. You have to imagine the Cubs will target a free agent outfielder and pursue one in a trade. However, the replacements’ caliber is still in question as financial restrictions could very possibly limit the front office.
Following three consecutive seasons of failing to meet expectations, the Cubs are forced to decide what direction to take with their roster. Jed Hoyer, the new president of baseball operations, has to balance fielding a competitive roster for the 2021 season while maintaining an eye on the future. There is also a sense of changing the roster’s dynamic, not just on offense but pitching as well. The Cubs have been known as a patient team, ranking high in on-base percentage since 2015, but unfortunately, the power numbers have not matched expectations in recent seasons. A sign that things will be different as soon as 2021 is Schwarber possibly being replaced with a more contact-first type of hitter, focussing on higher batting average and less on slugging and walks, as the rest of the lineup already has a bunch of those hitters. On the pitching side, the Cubs have been targeting and signing relief pitchers who are harder throwers, a change that’s happened all around MLB, but something the Cubs have been late to adapt to.
Although major changes are sure to occur over the next calendar year, it does appear as though the coaching staff will remain intact. After Joe Maddon and the Cubs mutually parted ways following the 2019 season, former big-league catcher and multiple World Series winners David Ross was hired as the manager. During the final few years of Maddon’s tenure in Chicago, the team’s hitting and pitching coach positions often changed. However, as Ross enters his second year as manager and hopefully first normal one, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and hitting coach Anthony Iapoce will enter their third season with the Cubs, bringing stability to the coaching staff.
Chicago Cubs Veteran Pitchers
After six successful years with the Chicago Cubs, left-handed starting pitcher Jon Lester was paid $10 million to buy out a $25 million option for the 2021 season. The Cubs are not likely to re-sign Lester, who is now a free agent, and will be losing their most veteran presence on the pitching staff. Lester, 36-years-old, has 15 years of MLB experience. Yet, he’s not the lone veteran left-hander leaving the team, as Jose Quintana will seek a new deal in free agency with nearly 250 starts under his belt.
Now, the starting rotation will be led by 2020 Cy Young Award runner-up Yu Darvish as the 34-year-old right-hander has three years remaining on his contract. Behind him is seven-year veteran Kyle Hendricks, who made his MLB debut in 2014 and is currently the pitcher who has been on the major league roster the longest.
Right-handed pitchers Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay are penciled in as the two other starters in the rotation slotted behind Darvish and Hendricks. Although both Mills and Alzolay have had great flashes of success, the duo has combined to start a total of 23 games at the big league level.
Switching over to the bullpen, closer Craig Kimbrel hopes to continue his much better conclusion to the 2020 season and regain the closer’s role. It has been a bumpy ride for a current active leader in saves since signing with the Cubs in 2019 and entering the third year of his contract, and the 31-year-old isn’t necessarily guaranteed to finish the 2021 season on the north side of Chicago.
The rest of the bullpen is made up of pitchers not much older than 30-years-old, who have had some good years but are looking to establish themselves as key contributors in the Cubs’ bullpen next season. Right-handers Colin Rea and Dan Winkler have already agreed to terms on deals for the 2021 season, as the pair of 30-year-olds are expected to be part of the reliever mix.
Meanwhile, it’s 28-year-old Rowan Wick that the Cubs are hoping will return stronger than ever from an oblique injury suffered in late September. With a great two-pitch arsenal with baffled opposing hitters since 2019, Wick is seen as the bullpen’s next best power arm after Kimbrel. There’s also 29-year-old Jason Adam, who isn’t a household name but turned heads in 2020 when he struck out 21 batters in 13.2 innings.
Although the Cubs bullpen won’t have a prominent pitcher added, you should expect good results. Outside of the poor performance from high-leverage relievers in 2019, the bullpen has been able to come together and be dependable for most of the past six seasons.
As a whole, you can definitely argue the entire pitching staff has been the one side carrying the Cubs for the past few years now.
Chicago Cubs Veteran Position Players
Entering their 12th and 11th MLB seasons, respectively, in 2021, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo are the clear clubhouse leaders for the Cubs. While catcher Willson Contreras has been with the organization the longest, Rizzo is the longest-tenured position player on the Cubs’ MLB roster, making his first appearance at Wrigley Field in 2012.
Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Contreras make up the rest of the core, as each man made their respective big league debuts in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
On the current 40-man roster, no other names besides the position players already mentioned have come close to having more than four full seasons under their belt at the MLB level. Heyward and Rizzo, both 31-years-old, are the oldest position players on the roster.
Depending on how much turnover there is on the roster and whether or not the plan is to be serious contenders in 2021, backup infielder David Bote might receive much more playing time than ever before. His versatility around the diamond gives Ross some flexibility, as Bote can play second base, third base, and in case of emergency, even shortstop. The Cubs have been looking for some stability at second base ever since Ben Zobrist’s final year with the Cubs in 2019.
Unfortunately, the circumstances of the COVID-19 season didn’t allow the Cubs to get a complete picture of what to expect from former number one prospect Nico Hoerner. His results have not met expectations, and it is realistic to say Hoerner may begin the 2021 season at Triple-A to continue his development. That decision could fuel the increased playing time for Bote.
Other than Heyward, 26-year-old switch-hitting Ian Happ is the lone outfielder on the Cubs’ current 40-man roster. The Cubs may opt to pursue a true center fielder this offseason, which would allow them to shift Happ over to the left field, and the hope would be he becomes a better defensive player in the corner than his work in the center.
Newer Chicago Cubs Players
Since the end of the 2020 season, the Cubs have not been aggressive in obtaining players via free agency, trades, or waivers. It is still relatively early in the offseason, and most of the 30 teams in MLB have also not been making noise with major transactions.
So far in the offseason, the two most known players added to the Cubs’ organization have been infielder Max Schrock, previously with the St. Louis Cardinals, and right-handed relief pitcher Robert Stock, who last pitched for the Boston Red Sox.
Schrock has only had a cup of coffee in MLB, while Stock has made 52 appearances for the San Diego Padres and Red Sox during the last three seasons. Outside of two or maybe three new players added this offseason, fans should most likely expect journeymen type of players to be signed by the Cubs. Essentially, this year could mirror the 2019-20 offseason plans.
The vast majority of other transactions so far this offseason have been to add depth to the minor league rosters.
Chicago Cubs Prospects
The majority of the top Cubs prospects are pitchers, as 18 hurlers take up the organization’s top-30 spots. However, at the top of the rankings, four of the five best players in the organization’s farm system are position players.
Left-handed starting pitcher Brailyn Marquez is considered the Cubs’ best prospect, but debates have been made to consider outfielder Brennen Davis the number one talent in the minors.
The Cubs are also deep at the catching position, not just on the MLB roster but also on the minors. Miguel Amaya is ranked third overall in the system, but he’s joined by fellow backstops Ethan Hearn and Ronnie Quintero in the top half of the best 30 Cubs prospects.
The Cubs also have some intriguing infield prospects to keep track of during the next few seasons, headlined by 2020 first-round draft pick Ed Howard. Second baseman Chase Strumpf and third baseman Christopher Morel are two more infielders who have caught the attention of minor league observers during the last year.
It’s also tough to remember that right-handed pitcher Adbert Alzolay is still a prospect. Cubs fans have been hearing about him for three years, but injuries delayed his eventual MLB arrival. At 25-years-old, Alzolay has only thrown 33.2 innings in the majors. Yet, his brilliant work ethic during the 2020 season and adjustments made at the team’s alternate training facility in South Bend led to promising results that have made experts believe Alzolay will flourish and live up to his potential as a starting pitcher beginning in 2021.
Cubs Roster FAQ
- What free agents will the Cubs go after this offseason?
- Who could replace Javier Baez if the Cubs move on from him as the shortstop?
- Who is the leading favorite to be the leadoff hitter for the Cubs in 2021?
- Can Yu Darvish win the National League Cy Young Award in 2021?
- Aside from Brailyn Marquez, what other Cubs prospect should fans be most excited about?
- What prospect is most likely to help the 2021 Cubs pitching staff?
- When will the Cubs sign international free agent shortstop Cristian Hernandez?
- Will the Cubs consider dealing closer Craig Kimbrel before the 2021 trade deadline?
- Who has the most trade value out of the Cubs core position players?
- What pick in the 2021 MLB Draft will the Cubs have in the first round?
Like the previous two years, the Cubs are not expected to pursue any of the top free agents this offseason. So, cross out Trevor Bauer and George Springer from your list and instead look toward recent non-tendered players as Cubs targets. Hey, maybe they’ll spend big bucks next year.
If the Chicago Cubs move on from Javier Baez as their future shortstop, then the 2021-22 free-agent class could give them their best options to replace the 2011 first- round pick. Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, and Carlos Correa are among the best available shortstops following the 2021 season.
The Cubs have been searching for stability at the top of their lineup since Dexter Fowler signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017. At this point, Ian Happ is the leading candidate to bat leadoff in 2021 after sliding into that role for the majority of the 2020 season.
After a rocky first year and a half with the Cubs, right-hander Yu Darvish has been one of the best starting pitchers in the National League. There is no reason to believe Darvish will slow down and begin 2021 as a top-five Cy Young candidate in the National League.
The Cubs farm system has been depleted over the past five years, but recent draft classes have produced intriguing prospects. He is most notably 21-year-old outfielder Brennen Davis, who has completely changed his swing since high school and has shot up rankings lists after a breakout 2019 minor league season.
We saw Brailyn Marquez’s MLB debut late in 2020, but the lefty still needs more seasoning in the minors. However, keep an eye on 25-year-old starting pitcher Cory Abbot, recently added to the Cubs’ 40-man roster this past November. Abbot had a 3.01 ERA in 26 starts in 2019.
The Cubs have been linked to Cristian Hernandez for a while, and if the COVID-19 pandemic never happened, then the shortstop would already be part of the organization. The signing period has been pushed from July 2, 2020, to Jan. 15, 2021. Hernandez’s still expected to sign with the Cubs.
Craig Kimbrel hasn’t been the elite closer the Cubs thought they were getting, and in 2021, he is set to earn $16 million. If the Cubs are out of the playoff picture by the summer, they will try to trade him and get prospects from a contending team.
Following down performances in 2020, and because Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo only have one year left before becoming free agents, Willson Contreras currently has the most trade value from the core. Contreras is under team control for two more years and comes at a lower price.
After finishing the 2020 season with a 34-26 record, the Cubs will have the 21st overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft. There will only be 29 players selected in the first round, as the Houston Astros were stripped of their first two draft picks in 2020 and 2021.