How Cubs envision new trade acquisition fitting on 2024 roster
A year ago at this time, the Cubs had a clear plan for their first base position:
Youngster Matt Mervis was expected to come up at some point in 2023 after a major breakout year in the minors while veterans Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer were signed as free agents to provide cover to give Mervis more time to develop at Triple-A and also to bring experience to a young, up-and-coming team.
A year later and first base is once again a major question mark for the Cubs.
Hosmer and Mancini were both released in the middle of last season and Mervis’ future in Chicago is a complete unknown — he struggled in a 27-game sample in the majors before being sent down and was never recalled to help out in the stretch run.
The Cubs entered the winter with both of their regular first basemen (Cody Bellinger, Jeimer Candelario) hitting the free agent market. Candelario signed with the Reds while Bellinger remains available and very well could re-sign with the Cubs.
Independent of anything related to Bellinger, the Cubs brought some clarity to the first base situation in 2024 when they pulled off a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers the day before the Cubs Convention kicked off.
Michael Busch is a former 1st-round pick (31st overall in 2019) and carries an impressive resume in pro ball that includes the Dodgers’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2023.
He has been ranked as a Top 100 prospect in the game in each of the last 3 seasons and currently sits No. 44 overall by MLB Pipeline (and 3rd on the Cubs’ list behind Pete Crow-Armstrong and Cade Horton).
Much like Christopher Morel, Busch has been a man without a positional home on the diamond over the last few years. He spent the majority of his time at second base in the Los Angeles system but has also played first, third, left field and DH. In college, he was most often utilized as a first baseman (158 games) at the University of North Carolina and the Cubs view him as a prime candidate to fill their void at that position.
“Our expectation is he’s on the Opening Day roster,” GM Carter Hawkins said over the weekend at the Cubs Convention. “I think there’s obviously opportunity at first base — that’s kinda the easy plug-and-play. He’s got really good reviews defensively over there from our scouts that have seen him, from talking to the Dodgers, from obviously seeing him over there.
“But he can play second, he can play third. We have a pretty good second baseman, so it’s unlikely that he’ll play over there as much. Third, I think there’s an opportunity over there. That’s probably the spot that he has to work on the most, but it’s a spot that we’d absolutely be open to him playing and we wanna get his bat in the lineup and we’ll figure out anyway we can do that.”
Busch, who turned 26 in November, had a 27-game stint in the majors with the Dodgers last year and like Mervis, struggled. Busch hit .167 with a .539 OPS, 2 homers and 7 RBI in 81 plate appearances.
But he absolutely tore up the minors, to the tune of a .323/.431/.618 slash line (1.049 OPS) with 27 homers and 90 RBI in 98 games for the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate.
“This guy has really performed,” new Cubs manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s a 1st-round pick, he’s gone through the minor leagues, he has prospect status, which is important right now. And he’s ready for the big leagues.
“He’s gonna get a shot — there’s no question about it. He’s done everything you can possibly do in Minor League Baseball. He’s ready for a major league shot. We need left-handed hitters. We’re skewed right-handed right now, so to add a young guy that’s left-handed is really important.”
As Counsell said, the most attractive aspect of Busch’s game to the Cubs was his left-handed bat. The core of the Cubs’ lineup is very right-handed (Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner, Seiya Suzuki, Yan Gomes, Morel) and apart from the switch-hitting Ian Happ, the other left-handed options available are a top prospect who may not be on the Opening Day roster (Crow-Armstrong) and a couple of role players (Mike Tauchman, Miles Mastrobuoni).
“He’s going to hit right-handed pitching, I have no question about that,” Jed Hoyer said. “Obviously the Dodgers, when you have a future Hall of Famer at DH and at first and second, that doesn’t leave a lot of playing time for other people. Hopefully that’s something we can benefit from.”
Like Hoyer said, the Dodgers have Freddie Freeman (first base), Mookie Betts (second base) and Shohei Ohtani (DH) blocking Busch from an expanded role in L.A. in 2024.
It was difficult for the Cubs to part with a couple of young prospects in Jackson Ferris (2022 2nd-round pick) and Zyhir Hope (2023 11th-rounder). But Hoyer and Co. are excited by Busch’s potential and if it works out, he’s under team control through at least the 2029 season.
As the roster stands right now, Busch can receive everyday playing time or form a platoon with Patrick Wisdom at first base and the Cubs have also worked with Morel at first base this winter. Morel, Mastrobuoni, Wisdom and Nick Madrigal are all options at third base.
Busch’s versatility is also an asset — just in case the Cubs make another move that might bring an established first baseman on the roster.
“He’s certainly going to play,” Hoyer said. “How the rest of the offseason plays out, we’ll see. But yeah, that’s been the mindset — that I think first base is the most natural spot for him.”