The Rundown: Bellinger Gives Counsell Multiple Lineup Options, Cubs Have NL’s Top Defensive Team, Ohtani Off Market (Again)

Cody Bellinger is super happy, and I am too, as long as Pete Crow-Armstrong makes the team. Why? I love the idea of having five potential Gold Glove winners playing defense. I know the Cubs are the favorites to win the NL Central, but they’ll never out-hit or out-pitch the Braves and Dodgers. That means their best path to the World Series is to out-defend everybody. With that in mind, give me a daily lineup that includes Bellinger, Crow-Armstrong, Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner, and Dansby Swanson.

The gaping hole is at third base, and though Matt Chapman is available and probably cheap, it sounds like Craig Counsell wants to stick with Christopher Morel. I don’t know if Counsell prefers a regular DH, and most teams do not, so put Michael Busch there with Morel taking reps when Nick Madrigal or Patrick Wisdom are playing third. Busch can play first when Bellinger sits or goes to center field. Mike Tauchman is a fantastic defender as well, so good he once silenced Chip Caray. Super smiley, fun-loving Captain Cody sure gives Counsell a ton of lineup flexibility.

By the way, the top two defensive teams in 2023 were the Rangers and the Diamondbacks (though FanGraphs had the Brewers on top), and that worked out quite well for each. The Cubs were 10th last season, with Wisdom accounting for 15% of Chicago’s errors thanks to his .942 fielding percentage. Call me crazy, but I believe Morel will be a little better this year.

The Cubs have a lot of pitch-to-contact starters and relievers, so a strong defense makes Counsell’s staff much better. Don’t get me wrong, that lineup will generate some runs, especially with Morel, Busch, and Seiya Suzuki, and each could bash 35 taters this season. Chicago was 32-18 in blowout games last season and that trend should continue this year.

But, as I mentioned in my previous edition of The Rundown, about 28% of MLB games are decided by one run, so Counsell needs as much run prevention as humanly possible. The Cubs will be a strong championship contender if they win 25-30 of those 45 games. Chicago’s North Side Baseballers were a miserable 21-24 in games decided by one run in 2023, including 4-10 during the first two months of the season. That’s when David Ross was regularly running with Eric Hosmer, Trey Mancini, and what seemed like dozens of other below-average first basemen.

There’s one more advantage to playing Bellinger at first base, and that’s that he’ll make Morel better. I have watched Counsell a lot because I live in Milwaukee. He always defers to the best defensive lineup except when matchups extremely favor something different. He probably isn’t going to change that philosophy.

Cubs News & Notes

Odds & Sods

Let’s hope Swanson isn’t part of the Welcome Wagon in his neighborhood.

Climbing the Ladder

Swanson had 11 errors in 2023, the worst on the team except Wisdom’s 15, but several came near the end of the season when the shortstop looked fatigued. Expect Counsell to give Swanson and his other starters strategically placed days off this season.

Bellinger posted a .218 ISO last season, his highest since 2019 and third-best for his career. That’s another point in favor of giving him reps at first base, where Chicago’s starters finished with a 92 wRC+ in ’23.

Busch will also help those offensive numbers. The Cubs finished 15th in MLB in home runs last season and 14th in isolated power.

Happ has cut his strikeout rate from 30% to 22.7% over the past two seasons, though his home run rate has dropped from 4.8 to 2.7 percent in that same span.

My updated NL Central predictions now that Bellinger has signed: Cubs, Brewers, Reds, Pirates, Cardinals.

Central Intelligence

Spring Training News & Notes

The Dodgers aren’t the only ones taking Shohei Ohtani off the market. Baseball’s highest-paid player announced his marriage to an unnamed woman.

Ohtani homered in his Dodger debut, naturally.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto made his Cactus League debut for the Dodgers and dominated the Rangers.

The Royals lobbied MLB and Nike for a special exemption to the new uniform lettering standard.

This year’s uniform fiasco now includes mismatched road greys.

The Yankees and Blake Snell are still talking.

I’ve got you covered if you’re interested in learning how to take professional-level photographs at spring training games.

Apropos of Nothing

Bellinger’s unique contract could mean Chicago’s current championship window might just be this season. There are waves of good-to-great players headed to the Cubs in the next few years, but it’s asking a lot for those kids to play championship-level baseball immediately. Let’s hope Bellinger loves it here enough to stay at least one additional season.

Extra Innings

Cannonball coming!

They Said It

  • “[I] didn’t hide the fact internally that I did want to come back here. I love Wrigley Field, I love the fans. Me and my family enjoyed Chicago. When it was coming to an end and everything was coming to light, this was something I definitely wanted and both sides agreed on. I’m super happy it worked out the way it did.” – Bellinger
  • “I kind of brush off [the poor analytics]. There are a lot of different variables that go into it and not to look at one certain stat to dictate a whole season. I definitely trust myself as a baseball player to go out every single day and put my best product on the field. I trust that the positive results are going to come. I believe in myself.” – Bellinger
  • “We were so close last year. For me to come back here with almost the same team and experience playoffs in Chicago is something I want to do, something I want to experience. It’s a big part of the reason I did want to come back here. I’m glad it all worked out.” – Bellinger
  • “Last year, in a lot of senses, doesn’t matter. It’s not going to necessarily help us this year, it’s not going to play the games for us. Good or bad. We gotta worry about what’s in front of us. Collectively, we hopefully have a bunch of people take steps forward, there’s gonna be some guys that take steps back. At the end of the year, that adds up to a net plus.” – Counsell

Thursday Walk-Up Song

Welcome back, Belli!

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