MLB: How the Cubs, Reds, Pirates and Cardinals get to the postseason in 2024

November 10, 2023

At the end of each regular season in Major League Baseball, there are always teams that had playoff, or even World Series, aspirations which failed to reach the postseason. Reasons range from significant injuries, to underwhelming performance, or a combination of many. Then, there are teams who had little chance to begin the season to reach the playoffs.

In this series, we will go division by division. Dissecting each team that missed the playoffs in each division, discussing their 2023 campaigns and answering questions such as: How close are they to the postseason? Who are some key free agents they could add? What does their current payroll situation mean?

(All estimated payrolls are credited to fangraphs and do not include salaries for arbitration eligible players, AAVs for players with guaranteed contracts no longer on the 40-man roster, estimated salaries for players not yet eligible for arbitration and other players with non-guaranteed contracts, or sums of other payments.)

Chicago Cubs

What happened in 2023?

What a tough September it was for the Chicago Cubs. Set up to make a playoff run heading into the final month of the season with a record of 71-62 and a game-and-a-half ahead in the National League wildcard standings to end August, the Cubs stumbled against a tough late-season schedule and ended up missing the postseason by one game after going 12-17 in their last 29 contests.

Chicago did well in their own division with a record of 30-22, but struggled against the NL East (11-20) and were one-game over .500 in against the NL West (17-16). Throughout the season, the Cubs didn’t have any glaring weaknesses. Starting with the offense, they had a No. 12 ranked team wRC+ and scored 819 runs, good for No. 6 in MLB. Limiting strikeouts to a 22.4% clip and scoring a walk rate above 9%. Cody Bellinger looked like his old self, Seiya Suzuki had a breakout season as did Christopher Morel and Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ were all above average bats by wRC+.

The starting rotation held their own ranking No. 12 in FIP (4.24) and No. 8 in team rotation fWAR (12.5). 28-year-old Justin Steele led the way with a 3.06 ERA and a 3.02 FIP to back it up. Kyle Hendricks and Marcus Stroman both tallied a FIP under three in over 130 innings pitched and up-and-coming Javier Assad had a brilliant 10 starts working to a 3.05 ERA.

The aforementioned final stretch in September was blemished by two series losses to Arizona (who finished one game ahead of them in the wildcard standings), combined with series losses to Colorado, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Milwaukee. The puzzling fact is, their team numbers weren’t all the different from the rest of the season. Their opponents were just… better.

What’s the fix?

Priority number one, re-sign Cody Bellinger. Beyond that, the Cubs should look to upgrade the rotation and can capitalize on the strong pitching market in free agency. At the very least, they need to replace the production from losing Marcus Stroman. Upgrading third base is another way to find more offense and consistency if Bellinger is indeed lost to free agency. This is a solid foundation that needs at least one top of the rotation arm and an every day hitter.

Key free agent possibilities:

Cincinnati Reds 

What happened in 2023?

Before we start here, I need to state that this might be the most fun team in baseball. Young, talented, athletic and exciting at the plate.

Ok, beyond my endearment for this team and their stacked young infield — let’s check out the numbers. The offense as a whole ranked No. 9 in runs per game (4.83). TJ Friedl led the way producing a four-win season combining solid outfield defense with a 116 wRC+ at the plate in 556 plate appearances. Spencer Steer, Matt McClain, Will Benson, Noelvi Marte and Christian Encarnacion-Strand all looked to be a part of the future and despite a disappointing season at the plate, Elly De La Cruz was as electric in the field and on the base paths as one could expect from the super-athlete.

Pitching is the weakness here, with the rotation posting a sour 5.43 cumulative ERA, good for No. 28 in the majors. There is some reason for optimism with Hunter Greene and Andrew Abbott posting FIP’s under 4.3, but they look more like mid to back-end rotation pieces than they do top of the rotation arms.

Finishing two games above .500 is a good start, but there is more work to do here.

What’s the fix?

Upgrade the rotation and this team looks like a playoff team in 2024. But the upgrades need to be significant. They can’t expect Abbott to post another sub-four ERA with a FIP over 4.2. Hunter Greene belongs in the third or fourth spot in the rotation after posting an xERA of 3.82 and striking out batters at a 12.21 (!) K/9 rate. Beyond those two, there is plenty of room to add here and no other current pitcher on the roster should be a foregone conclusion to be in the rotation come the regular season. This could be a problem they choose to solve by trading from their glut of young infielders or Cincinnati could opt spend some money in free agency. Maybe both.

Key free agent possibilities:

Pittsburgh Pirates 

What happened in 2023?

The Pirates finished ten games under .500 and the fans in Pittsburgh deserve better, they have for awhile now. This organization hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2015, and while they did find themselves in the postseason for three straight years, (2013, 2014, 2015), they never got out of the wildcard round and you have to go back another eleven years (1992) before another postseason berth was achieved. Sitting on the brink of mediocrity or worse for an aimless eight seasons has this fan base on the brink of tuning out completely and re-signing Bryan Reynolds to a team friendly deal alone isn’t going to fill the seats.

The offense ranked No. 25 in wRC+ (90) and No. 28 in home runs (159). The rotation ranked No. 27 in fWAR as a group (6.9), No. 23 in K/9 (8.12) and No. 28 in BB/9 (3.77). Frankly, I’m not sure this team shouldn’t have lost more games.

What’s the fix?

This organization needs to pick a direction. Rebuild this team from the ground up, or attempt to add to the talent they do have as their farm trickles in young talent to the big league club. General Manager Ben Cherington has vocalized that they will be aggressive in the trade market and free agency and hopefully that rings true. However, it needs to bring impact. Reclamation projects that have been popularly mentioned as ‘could-be-targets’ for the Pirates such as Jack Flaherty or Harrison Bader are fine, but this team needs impact now. Bringing in at least one proven rotation arm and one proven everyday bat would show the fanbase this team is serious about winning again.

Key free agent possibilities:

St. Louis Cardinals 

What happened in 2023?

A severe overestimate of what the pitching staff would be able to do aided this team to a record 20 games under .500. The rotation ranked No. 26 in team ERA (5.08) and ranked No. 29 in K-BB% (9.7). xFIP (4.75) has the group actually performing worse than the resulting FIP (4.61). The bullpen was league average with 4.4 fWAR as a group ranking No. 14 in MLB, but it wasn’t near enough to pick up the starters.

The offense that had a chance to be top 10 in baseball also disappointed, finishing with a team wRC+ ranked No. 13 in the league (104). St. Louis likely felt like the offense could carry them through the season and they could upgrade the rotation at the deadline as long as they were sitting in a good spot to make the postseason. But none of that came to fruition and they ended up trading their best pitcher Jordan Montgomery to the Rangers for prospects.

What’s the fix?

Pitching. Arms. Hurlers, Twirlers. Call them what you want, but St. Louis needs them, badly. They do have options to trade from MLB level talent to obtain the pitching they are looking for. GM John Mozeliak acknowledged they need  “at least two” rotation arms, I think they need at least three. The resources should be there to sign to free agent starters and go get another one by trading from the surplus of outfielders they currently have. What they do with Paul Goldschmidt and his deal that expires in 2024 will be one of the more exciting storylines of the offseason.

Key free agent possibilities:

Casey Bellon

You may also like

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}