Dansby Swanson didn’t want to comment on the trade deadline during this past homestand. As he pointed out, the deadline is still two months away (Aug. 1 this season). The Cubs are now only 55 games into their season, just over a third of the way through.
“There’s a lot of baseball to be played,” Swanson said.
With that in mind, it’s understandable that Swanson doesn’t want to start thinking about the potential of a third straight sell-off for the Cubs — not to mention the fact that he’s talked about winning since the day he signed, and selling would be an obvious sign that the team didn’t do enough of it in 2023.
Which makes this a pretty important month of June, the most important month of June — and probably the most important month for the team, period — since June 2021. After throwing a combined no-hitter on the road against the Dodgers on June 24 that year, the Cubs ended the month on a six-game losing streak. That extended into July for another five games, taking the team from nine games above .500 to two games below. And despite hovering around .500 for the rest of that month, by the end of it, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer decided it was time to part ways with the core players set to hit free agency that offseason.
Ian Happ was on that team, so he’s seen how June can help dictate what this front office does at the trade deadline. But he also says that trying to do too much to avoid a bad outcome won’t help things, either.
“I think that’s the responsibility of the players to go out and keep doing the same things, keep doing the little things that helped you win games and not press,” Happ said after his team completed a 10-18 May. “You have to have the confidence and the belief to keep going. If you get in that situation where you’re pressing every day, it gets really hard [for] everybody. I think the guys in this room with the experience, that won’t be a problem.”
The players may have that belief in themselves, but they need the front office to believe in them, too.
Swanson has some experience in that regard. The season the Cubs’ first sell-off happened, his Braves found themselves in a similar situation. Except, his front office believed in that team’s potential going into the deadline, even as the group still struggled to get over the hump.
On July 15, 2021, the Braves were 44-45 — 4 1/2 games back in the National League East, four games out of an NL Wild Card spot. Five days earlier, young Atlanta star Ronald Acuña Jr. tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, which prematurely ended his season. With the deadline just over two weeks away at that point, that front office could easily have done what the Cubs’ would eventually do.
Instead, on that very day, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos helped Hoyer start the North Side sell-off by trading for Joc Pederson. Then, on the day of the deadline, Atlanta added Jorge Soler (Kansas City), Eddie Rosario (Cleveland) and former-Brave Adam Duvall (Miami) in trades.
“Whenever you add and look to get better, it obviously makes a difference for the energy in the clubhouse, energy for the fans,” Swanson said. “I’d say it was like a big stabilizer for us. Kind of like, ‘Hey, we believe in this group, and we’re hoping that these moves work out.'”
The rest of the story for that year’s Braves team — a 44-28 record after the All-Star break, a division crown and a World Series title — gives postseason hopefuls, well, hope. Along with the 2019 World Series champion Nationals (12 games below .500 after 50 games) and 2022 NL champion Phillies (8 below .500 after 50), there’s recent proof that turnarounds can happen. And particularly in Atlanta case, that addressing holes in the roster can really spark a middling group.
“We’d obviously had some injury problems, some inconsistencies of play,” he said, ‘and we were probably kind of where we’re at now, just in terms of, like, survival mode, right? Just trying every day to strap up and do the best you can to win a ballgame somehow, some way.
“Obviously, the Joc addition [first] and some of the others [later] — Rosario, Soler, we got Duvall back — I think it just kind of brought a newfound energy and stability and consistency to that group. Because I feel like we felt like we were underachieving, kind of like the moment we’re in now. I think it’s similar in a way, yeah.”
The fact that the Cubs head into play Friday just 4 1/2 games back in the NL Central and four back of an NL Wild Card spot means they have hope. Does a lot of that hope come from the fact that most of the league has underachieved and their division is bad? Of course. Despite the Cubs owning the third-worst record in the NL (24-31), there’s at least a month’s worth of wiggle room left to make up ground.
“It’s too early to look at [the standings], but it’s nice when you’re going through a stretch like this to only be a few games back. It’s more defeating if you’re 10-15 games back,” Happ said. “You’re still in the hunt.”
Is it enough that the calendar has flipped and the Cubs can say, “Thank goodness that month is over”? Can they really put that much weight on the start of a new month as they look to leave a bad one in the past?
“I think this year in particular, how we started felt like a nice three weeks, almost a month, of good baseball. And then this last month was not our best,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “It’s like, OK, let’s try to start this new month off the right way and try to play our best baseball. I think, mentally, I stay in the day to day. I don’t look ahead, but the turning of the chapter of this month, it kind of feels nice.”
Based on the front office’s actions the last two seasons, questions about the trade deadline are warranted. July is when the hot stove has truly warmed up, and a team’s fate might be decided by then.
So, the decision to buy or sell does feel reliant on this team’s June results. Some signs of progress — especially in the standings — might push Hoyer and Co. to add. A bad month that sinks the already last-place Cubs further away from a postseason spot could force the front office into selling the team’s trade chips (Marcus Stroman, Cody Bellinger and Drew Smyly would appear to be the most valuable) for a third consecutive year.
It won’t be an easy month to navigate. They open June on a 10-game West Coast trip, which is never easy. There’s also Justin Steele’s injury, which would obviously affect the rotation if he misses much time. But that’s the situation the Cubs find themselves in. They squandered a good April with a really poor May. The front office promised fans the team would compete, so the optics of another sell-off — which might still be the best course of action depending where the team is at a few weeks from now — would be really bad.
The Cubs probably don’t have the World Series potential Swanson’s Braves team did, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t strive for the playoffs. But again, that requires belief in the group from the front office.
So, it comes down to this team going out and proving it’s worth adding to in July.
“There’s a lot of baseball to be played, and I think we all have a clear image of how to play better and what we need to do better,” Swanson said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a matter of showing up and doing it each and every day.”
“We have a good team. A good team with a lot of good players who have been around and experienced a lot. I’m not worried about the group,” Happ said. “I think we have an opportunity. We’re only two months in, right? We have an opportunity to go on a little bit of a run, have a really good June and then see where we’re at.”