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The biggest question lingering over the Cubs is who will still be on the team a month from now after the Aug. 2 trade deadline has passed. What the roster looks like at that point will reveal a lot about how far from contention the front office thinks the Cubs are.
In the meantime, the Cubs are in the midst of their best stretch of the season. Even with Sunday’s 4-2, 11-inning loss to Boston, they have won each of their last three series. This week’s homestand against the Reds and the Red Sox was their best of the season, and the four-game winning streak that ran from Wednesday through Saturday was their first streak that long since winning four in a row from May 14-17 against the Diamondbacks and the Pirates.
Going back a little further, the Cubs have won four of their last five series, taking down the Braves, the Cardinals and the Red Sox in the process. During that stretch, the Cubs have relied on the standard winning recipe of good starting pitching, a solid bullpen, and quality at-bats. And even as they are waiting for the return of key pieces like Marcus Stroman and Seiya Suzuki, some of the role players and younger guys like Mark Leiter Jr. and Nelson Velázquez have stepped in.
“I feel like it’s been a real team effort. The full roster has really been contributing,” manager David Ross said.
Leiter came into Saturday’s game when Alec Mills couldn’t finish the first inning because of a lower back strain, and Velázquez has posted an OPS just under .900 since being called up for the second time on June 20.
Both Stroman and Suzuki are due back very soon, so the places on the roster for players like Velázquez will come into question. Stroman started for Triple-A Iowa on Sunday and Suzuki traveled back to join the team the same day; he is expected to be activated before Monday’s game in Milwaukee.
In all likelihood, either Velázquez or Narciso Crook gets sent back to Iowa to make room for Suzuki. Getting Suzuki back is obviously a positive, but for fans eager to see some of the younger players who might be a part of the future core, it can be frustrating to watch as the Velázquezes and Crooks of the organization keep having to vie for playing time or a spot on the big league roster.
But that’s part of the day-to-day of a ballclub, and the younger players understand that. They also know that even a short trip to the majors has benefits.
“When you have to make those moves, you understand the goal is to get here and stay, obviously,” Ross said. “But just getting that experience and going back and being ready, you know that you’re on the radar and you’re a guy that his number is going to be called when you need him.”
As they are fast approaching a trade deadline that will separate the current Cubs roster even further from the one that won the World Series six years ago, the attention turns to not only how long before the Cubs are serious competitors again, but who will be a part of what team president Jed Hoyer has often called “the next great Cubs team.”
The Cubs have been more fun to watch lately thanks to their recent success, but they are still 15 games below .500. And whether or not Hoyer wants to call this year a rebuild, his team is in the midst of heavy personnel changes.
“I feel like we’re just a few pieces away,” Stroman said. “Going into any given year, depending on health, performance, I truly think that if everybody stayed healthy and guys performed, we could’ve been right there, too.”
Stroman signing with the Cubs in December to a three-year, $71 million deal was probably a signal that Hoyer believes his team can contend sooner rather than later. Stroman himself has said he expects the same as well, and that is likely part of the reason he was willing to come to Chicago.
Suzuki’s five-year, $85 million contract was another sign of the same expectation. A team that plans to embark on a lengthy rebuild does not make those kinds of moves during an offseason. And for what it’s worth, on a recent episode of his podcast, Jon Heyman said, “Cubs, who I hear they’re gonna spend, so that’s going to be interesting and something to keep an eye on.”
It is expected that the Cubs will trade Willson Contreras by Aug. 2, and a few of the bullpen arms – David Robertson, Chris Martin, Mychal Givens – are probably headed out, too. It will be what Hoyer does beyond those players that will be most telling. If, say, Ian Happ gets traded, then it might be safe to assume that Hoyer is working toward building that next great Cubs team that won’t contend until 2024 or later.
So for now, the positive contributions of someone like Velázquez, Crook, or Christopher Morel might be glimpses of better days ahead. Like Javier Báez homering in his 2014 debut, Morel’s debut home run might one day become a part of Cubs lore.
“You just never know, right? I think anybody that told you that Christopher Morel was going to come up and do what he did, or is doing, they’d be lying if they said they knew that was going to happen,” general manager Carter Hawkins told CHGO. “I think just continuing to have great plans in place for our players is the pipeline for all of those stories. You start piling those up, and things move a little bit faster.
“Sometimes, it might be a little slower as well. I think you just continue to try to make great decisions down there.”
More clarity would be nice, but a general manager is not going to tip his hand too much a month out from the deadline. For the moment, series wins against good teams will have to serve as short-term victories.
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