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Cubs mailbag: Slumping, deadline reflecting, Stroman & more

Ryan Avatar
September 19, 2023

If the season had ended Sunday night, the Cubs would’ve been out of the playoffs.

That would’ve been crazy to think would happen considering where they were less than two weeks ago — FanGraphs gave them a 92.4 percent shot to make the postseason after sweeping the Giants on Sept. 6 — but here we are just 12 days later. It’s a disappointing stretch, for sure, but it’s not one that has completely sunk the season yet. Entering Monday, the Cubs are very much still in the Wild Card race. It is certainly not over.

With 12 games remaining, Cubs fans have questions about the direction of the team. Inside this mailbag, we’ll discuss what has gotten the Cubs to this point and what the future might hold.

Questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

gaross18 asks: What will it take to get Cubs out of this funk?

That’s the million-dollar question, and one that’s so hard to answer. If there was an easy answer, David Ross and Co. would’ve done it by now rather than let this turn into a five-game skid to end a 2-8 run. It’s a slump that’s taken the Cubs from comfortably in the second National League Wild Card spot to now out of the playoffs entirely because of tiebreakers.

There’s really not a whole lot the Cubs can do except just try to be better, honestly. It’s probably too late in the season to implement major changes. Ross has tried out different lineups, specifically by moving Ian Happ to the leadoff spot over the last two games (which I’ve been in favor of). It also now appears that Jameson Taillon’s next start will be skipped, as Javier Assad, Justin Steele and Kyle Hendricks are lined up to start the three games against the Pirates. So, in terms of doing different things to try to stack some wins, those are some examples.

But yeah, they just need to get better performances in all facets of the game. The rotation (4.15 ERA, 11th in MLB in the last 10 games) and bullpen (3.94, 15th) could stand to see some improvement, but the offense (85 wRC+, 20th) has not been good enough during this stretch, especially when it comes to getting the big hit (79 wRC+ with RISP, 25th). Perhaps the lineup changes and some more at-bats for someone like Pete Crow-Armstrong could provide a spark. But overall, the Cubs need to continue to keep their “one game at a time” mindset and look for better play down the stretch.

furiousjeff asks: Do you believe it was a failure for the Cubs’ front office to not add more during the trade deadline?

It depends on the context you’re looking at it through. Could the Cubs have used more reinforcements at the deadline? Of course, and now that Jeimer Candelario is on the injured list, the bullpen is taxed and it seems like they’re struggling to the finish line, it seems even more obvious.

But also, think about the fact that the Cubs are right up against the luxury tax threshold (per FanGraphs, currently just over $5 million below it). By not adding, the Cubs saved themselves some money and have reset the payroll for luxury-tax purposes. That means they can go into the winter with money to spend, and by not going all in on this season — which, let’s face it, wasn’t a season they should’ve gone all in — they aren’t getting hit with penalties for going over it.

I understand why some fans will look back at the trade deadline and wish they would’ve done more. But I also know why not going over the luxury tax threshold made sense this season from the Cubs’ perspective. So back to the original question: even though it stings not to have those reinforcements right now, I ultimately would not call it a failure on the front office for not adding more.

RadioMaverick asks: Looking toward the playoffs, how would you look to line up pitching both the starters and the bullpen?

Hey, it’s nice to see someone hasn’t given up on the Cubs’ playoff hopes.

Let’s assume the Cubs earn a Wild Card spot. At this point, the best option for the rotation for the Wild Card round is Steele, Hendricks and Jordan Wicks considering how they’ve performed (and in hopes that Steele doesn’t have to pitch Game 162 in Milwaukee).

This is operating under the assumption that Marcus Stroman isn’t built up enough to take one of those starts, so he and Assad would move to the bullpen. You’re also looking at Drew Smyly, Brad Boxberger, Mark Leiter Jr., and Julian Merryweather as relief options, and the Cubs hope Michael Fulmer and Adbert Alzolay will be healthy and off the IL to join them. The rest of the bullpen should then be filled out with some combination of Hayden Wesneski, Luke Little, Daniel Palencia and even Jameson Taillon.

Right now, that’s how I’m looking at the rotation and bullpen makeups for the postseason — if the Cubs can get there.

furiousjeff asks: Where do you see Marcus Stroman lining up in the bullpen? Long relief, 2-3 innings guy? Or high-leverage arm?

A mixture of both would be my guess. We’ve already seen Stroman make his return for two innings in a blowout Friday, and then he took the mound in the bottom of the 10th on Saturday. It doesn’t feel like there’s any one role coming for him.

He’s even said himself that he’s comfortable doing whatever is needed to help the team win, telling reporters in Arizona that he’d be fine pitching in whatever role his coaches ask him to pitch in. So for now, I think we’ll see a little variety in Stroman’s role, whether that’s just a single inning or multiple. However, I will also say I can’t imagine Ross would use him only in mop-up duty considering how strong Stroman has looked when he’s been healthy this season. Expect him to get his share of leverage situations moving forward.

Sir Silent of the Fogs asks: What do you see as the Cubs’ No. 1 priority in the offseason?

For me, the No. 1 priority is re-signing Cody Bellinger. He makes so much sense given his age (28), his defensive versatility (can play first base and any outfield position) and his strong resurgence at the plate (136 wRC+). His 4.0 fWAR shows just how valuable he’s been to the Cubs this season, and both sides have loved the fit together in 2023. Being comfortable and enjoying his season in Chicago is a factor that will work in the Cubs’ favor.

Now, as a Scott Boras client, you can’t expect the Cubs to get a discount to keep him around. There will be other team looking to pay for his services, and there’s probably a good shot that Bellinger nails down center-fielder money on his contract. So even if the Cubs envision playing him a lot of first base if he returns, they’d still have to pay up to bring him back.

But the fit just makes too much sense to not be interested in a reunion. No, maybe the Cubs shouldn’t go overboard on a contract to bring him back into the fold, but if they can match Bellinger’s asking price, they should absolutely do what they can to re-sign him.

Players like Bellinger don’t fall into your lap every season, after all.

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