Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when the Chicago Cubs let World Series-winning manager Joe Maddon go, hired David Ross to oversee an inevitable rebuild, and then surprised everyone by looking like an actual NL Central contender?

ESNY remembers.

The Northsiders are ready to light up Wrigleyville again, and they’re bringing Cody Bellinger back on a new contract. Ross is gone and there’s a new sheriff in town. The Cubs even dipped their toes in the international market and signed Japanese veteran Shōta Imanaga on a four-year, $53 million contract. It’s easy to forget that despite missing the playoffs, the Cubs won 83 games and had a Top 10 offense.

Hey, Chicago, whaddaya say? Are the Cubs gonna win the NL Central today?

Greatest Addition: Craig Counsell. Sometimes, you have to go out and get the best manager available. Counsell defected from the division-rival Brewers to sign a five-year deal worth upwards of $40 million with the Cubs. He left behind quite a legacy in Milwaukee, winning 707 games in nine years.

The Brewers may still be the division favorites, but the Cubs are in the proverbial catbird seat. Counsell left the Brewers for the Cubs, and they named his longtime lieutenant (And former college coach!) Pat Murphy his successor. Unless Murphy proves a better master tactician, the rest of the NL Central will have its hands full with Chicago.

And no matter what they do, or how many times they try, Craig Counsell will be ready for them all.

Greatest Loss: Marcus Stroman. Losing a groundball pitcher who can give the team plenty of innings is never easy, and Stroman is no exception. His career ground ball percentage (GB%) is 56.7%, and four of his six pitches generated positive run value last year. Stroman fought through some injuries to finish with a 3.95 ERA in 136.2 innings, then went home to New York to sign a two-year deal with the Yankees.

But the Cubs will miss Stroman for more than just baseball reasons, at least on the field. He’s a fierce competitor, devoted teammate, and doesn’t have much baggage save for the occasional social media flub. Chicago’s rotation isn’t sunk without him, but definitely lost its spark plug when Stroman left for the Bronx.

Greatest Strength: Prospects on the rise. What makes the Chicago Cubs an extra exciting team to watch is that their best youth is almost MLB-ready. No. 1 prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong has a phenomenal glove in center field and plus hitting potential. Former Dodgers rookie Michael Busch hit 27 homers in the minors last season and is slated to be the Cubs’ everyday first baseman.

Chicago also has an interesting piece in Matt Mervis, a lefty-hitting first baseman who’s likely to see more time at DH. He hit 22 home runs at Triple-A Iowa in 2023 and 36 across three levels the year before. If Cade Horton can build up his innings and keep striking out the world, then the next complete Chicago Cubs era may be on the rise sooner than we think.

Greatest Weakness: An aging, outdated rotation. There’s a common denominator in the Cubs’ pitching rotation: Ground balls and soft contact. There is no dominant shutdown ace. Only inexperienced or aging junkballers hoping luck runs their way. Unfortunately for the Cubs, there isn’t much depth behind the starting five. And as much as we’d love to see Horton debut this year, it’s highly unlikely and probably wouldn’t happen till September anyway.

What are the Cubs to do? Kyle Hendricks’ changeup is his only truly effective pitch anymore. Jameson Taillon, who signed a $68 million deal last offseason before pitching to a 4.84 ERA, is already down with a bad back. The trade deadline is months away but even so, team president Jed Hoyer should be scouting potentially available pitchers already.

Will the Cubs fly the W in October? As things currently stand, I don’t think so. Counsell is an excellent manager and can absolutely rally his team to leapfrog the Brewers, but it all depends on the lineup. The Chicago Cubs simply do not have enough proven, durable arms to keep up in a pennant race.

Again, that can change by the trade deadline. Having a strong farm system means the Cubs can afford to trade minor leaguers for a top pitcher and make a run at the playoffs. However, this high-upside lineup must set the tone to get them there.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.