Cubs' off-season plans focused on free agent Bellinger

At the Obvious Shirts store a few blocks from Wrigley Field, one popular selection is the "Summer of Tauchman" shirt, in honor of the Cubs' surprising center fielder.

Get ready for the "Winter of Bellinger."

The Cubs' lineup for 2024 is mostly locked in, except for the team's best hitter, who will hit free agency and figures to be in high demand after a nice bounce-back year on the North Side.

There's obviously a limit to how high the Cubs will go in contract negotiations. The problem is, if the Cubs do lose Bellinger, there's no easy plan to replace his production.

So to say the Cubs' off-season depends on whether or not a team like the Yankees become aggressive spenders is no exaggeration. It's also possible the Yankees will make a run at Shohei Ohtani instead or be wary of Bellinger's poor performance in 2021 and '22 with the Dodgers.

"We sat down with him on Sunday and had a long conversation," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "We've had really good dialogue throughout the whole year. He loves Wrigley Field and he loves the fans and I think his experience was fantastic. Obviously, our experience with him was fantastic.

"We'd love to bring him back. We'll have a lot of conversations with him. Obviously, it's a process and that process does not start now, it's going to play out for a while."

Especially since Bellinger is represented by Scott Boras, who has a history of dragging out free-agent negotiations. So the Cubs may not even know Bellinger's future destination while they're conducting the majority of off-season business. The first priority may be the last to get done.

"I think you're always trying to sell free agents on what it's like to play in Chicago." Hoyer said. "There's nothing better than to having a guy experience for a year and openly say he loves it. Certainly, it gives us a shot. We don't have to recruit him very hard."

Besides Ohtani and Bellinger, the top of the MLB free-agent market will be geared more toward pitchers. The Cubs could conceivably pursue Ohtani, but his market has changed now that an elbow injury will force him to be a DH only in '24, with the hope of returning to the mound a year later.

There's also been chatter about the Cubs being interested in trading for a 2025 free agent - possibly Mets first baseman Pete Alonso or San Diego outfielder Juan Soto. Both would likely require $300 million paydays to stick around long-term.

But maybe the Cubs are ready to think big after exceeding preseason expectations and failing to make the playoffs. Hoyer talked about seeing NL leader Atlanta up close during the disappointing final week of the regular season.

"That's what the standard has to be," he said. "That has to be the goal. To make the leap up to Atlanta territory, that's going to take a little bit of time."

Here's a quick rundown on where things stand for the Cubs. They've got a core of regulars signed for at least three years - shortstop Dansby Swanson, second baseman Nico Hoerner, right fielder Seiya Suzuki and left fielder Ian Happ.

Thanks to Suzuki's strong last two months of the season, the Cubs finished with two of the MLB leaders in OPS. Bellinger (. 881) finished 12th and Suzuki (. 842) was 22nd.

"The shell of a really good team is there," Hoyer said. "Obviously we have to make additions and we have to find ways to improve, but I feel really good given where we were a year ago, the number of pieces we have that are contributing players on a really good team."

The pitching rotation could be largely the same. Justin Steele is under team control for four more years, while Jameson Taillon is signed for three. Marcus Stroman has a player option for $21 million, and after an injury-filled second half of the season, the expectation is he'll return to the Cubs. Kyle Hendricks has a team option worth $16 million, and Hoyer made it clear where his sentiments lie.

"Certainly he's been one of my favorite Cubs players to be around since we got here," Hoyer said of Hendricks. "Hard to imagine a better teammate, someone who redefines low-maintenance. ... We want to keep him as a Cub for next year and beyond."

If Steele, Stroman, Hendricks and Taillon are back, that leaves one spot for Javier Assad, Jordan Wicks or anybody else. But the Cubs proved again this year pitching depth is vital.

After the late-season collapse, the Cubs probably want to budget some money to improve the bullpen depth. A good target would be former White Sox fireballer Reynaldo Lopez.

The Cubs have a $6 million team option for veteran catcher Yan Gomes, which feels like a no-brainer. Hoyer said he liked the combo of Gomes and rookie Miguel Amaya behind the plate.

Hoyer does not view this year's campaign a success because the Cubs failed to make the playoffs. They went from 10 games under .500 to 12 over before going 7-15 during the final three weeks of the season.

"You can't call something that falls short of your goals as a success, so ultimately we have to live with that," he said. "I know it will motivate me all winter."

Palatine native Mike Tauchman is under team control but could be sitting around waiting for Bellinger news to drop. The Cubs also have top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong ticketed for center field, so it's conceivable Tauchman will consider a return to Korea, where he played in 2022.

Obviously, just about everything pertaining to the Cubs' off-season depends on Bellinger.

"We're pretty good at working through Plan A to Plan Z," Hoyer said. "You have to be super diligent and creative. Sometimes those plans go exactly as you hoped and sometimes something happens and it blows that up."

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer listens to a question during the news conference at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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