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Cubs mailbag: Trade deadline talk, Bellinger's future and more

Ryan Herrera Avatar
May 19, 2023

We are just over a quarter of the way through the 2023 Major League Baseball season, and it feels like the year is all but over for the Cubs (at least that’s what Cubs Twitter would have you believe).

In reality, the wheels haven’t completely fallen off yet. Yes, since Drew Smyly flirted with perfection on April 21, they’re 7-17. They’ve gone from a season-high five games above .500 (12-7) to a season-low five games below .500 (19-24) in that time. They aren’t getting production from their offense, rotation and bullpen at the same time, and it’s costing them games.

But no, the season isn’t over. They’re 43 games into a 162-game season. They still have the third-best run differential in the National League. It does feel like they Cubs are playing below their potential, and considering they’re five games back in the NL Central and 3.5 games back of an NL Wild Card spot heading into Friday, a good stretch can get them right back in the hunt.

Fans don’t necessarily want to hear that, though. They’re angry, especially after blowing a five-run lead to the Astros on Wednesday in what might be the toughest loss to stomach in years. They’re questioning president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer’s ability to construct a roster, and they’re questioning manager David Ross’ ability to, well, manage.

They have questions about a number of things surrounding the Cubs right now, and fortunately, I’m here to answer what I can (some questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity).

moore2score asks: Is this team buying or selling at the deadline?

Honestly, I think it’s too early to really talk about the trade deadline. It’s May 19. Like I said in the introduction, the Cubs are far from out of the playoff hunt. And unlike the 2022 Cubs (who were actually only one game worse record-wise after 43 games), this roster actually has potential turn things around and play meaningful games throughout the summer.

I understand why the question is being asked. These last few weeks haven’t been pretty. Rather than take advantage of a weak division — and let’s face it, take advantage of an overall underwhelming NL — the Cubs have slumped. They’re back in a position where buying at the deadline (even for minor upgrades) is in question, and selling some pieces instead is realistic.

But again, I think it’s too early to predict what position they’ll be in 74 days from now. They’re struggling at the moment, but remember, the Guardians and the Mariners had 19-24 and 18-25 records, respectively, through their first 43 games of 2022. Cleveland ended up winning 92 games, and Seattle won 90. Heck, go back a few years to 2019, when the Nationals won the World Series; they were 12 games under .500 (19-31) as late as May 23 that season.

I don’t see the Cubs competing for a title this year. But can they turn things around and be buyers when the deadline roles around? I think so.

Aaron Strike asks: It’s been pointed out that Matt Mervis’ performance could be a factor in whether the Cubs choose to extend Cody Bellinger, because he can play first base. Bellinger is a Scott Boras client. How would you rate the chances the Cubs can extend Bellinger in-season?

I’d rate chances for an in-season extension as incredibly low. For starters, Hoyer made it pretty clear after the Cubs and Ian Happ agreed on an extension a month ago that he didn’t anticipate having any more in-season negotiations.

Then, you add in the fact that, as you mentioned, he’s a Boras client. Boras has a history of one-year deals to put clients coming off a down year into a comfortable situation, where they hopefully have a bounce-back season before re-entering the free-agent market — otherwise known as “pillow contracts.” The likeliest scenario is that, as long as Bellinger continues to produce close to the level he has for most of the season (despite a rough May, he’s still got a 122 wRC+), he’s going to hit the market again.

Now, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t enter negotiations to bring him back this winter. Pete Crow-Armstrong appears to be the center fielder of the future, and they have a load of other intriguing outfield prospects. But to your point, Bellinger can also play first base (he spent the majority of his first two seasons at the spot). He can move back to the infield and he’ll only turn 28 in July, so he could form some sort of 1B/DH tandem with Mervis for a few years. Provided the bat plays for the rest of the year (he probably won’t match his torrid April, but his current numbers would be great over a full season), it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see what it would take to re-sign him.

So to bring this answer full circle, I don’t think an in-season extension is realistic. But if the Cubs believe Bellinger is the long-term impact bat they’re looking for, and if he has some desire to stay on the North Side, a reunion isn’t out of the question.

CubRachel asks: Should we be hopeful about what Kyle Hendricks’ return could bring?

It’s not a terrible thing to have reservations about Hendricks’ return. We shouldn’t expect Cy Young contender Hendricks, but there’s reason to believe he can be better than what he showed for most of the last two years.

The capsular tear in his right shoulder obviously impacted him. He wouldn’t have missed the entire second half of 2022 if it didn’t. His recovery program involved altering his arm path to avoid that type of ailment in the future. So in that sense, considering what both Cubs coaches and Hendricks himself have said, he’s physically felt good after each time he’s thrown. That’s a major positive step.

He’s made four rehab starts with Triple-A Iowa, and the results early on weren’t pretty. In his first two outings, he allowed 10 earned runs, gave up eight hits and walked four in just 4 1/3 innings. He threw a bullpen at Wrigley Field on May 6, and he said then that he’d been having some issues with his mechanics. Since that quick trip to Chicago, Hendricks has gone five innings apiece in two starts, allowing just two earned runs while striking out eight and walking only two.

It’s unlikely that Hendricks ever reaches his high highs again. His last couple seasons don’t offer much faith. But at this point, the Cubs don’t need Hendricks to be a No. 1. Justin Steele is emerging as a legit top of the rotation starter, Marcus Stroman is consistently pitching like Marcus Stroman and Smyly has so far exceeded expectations. Really, the Cubs just need Hendricks to stay healthy and eat innings. They don’t necessarily need him to be “The Professor” every fifth day. Just solid production from that spot in the rotation will help continue the group’s overall impressive first quarter of the season.

I’d probably take a wait-and-see approach before I start to believe Hendricks is “back,” but I think there’s some hope that he can come close enough to pre-2021 levels.

furiousjeff asks: Curious on what you think they should do with Hayden Wesneski? Do you think with Hendricks possibly ending rehab soon, they just forgo developing him as a starter and just kind of piggyback him? Doesn’t seem like he’s got enough FB command to get it done, and he’s destined for relief.

Off the top, I don’t think there’s a plan in which the Cubs move Wesneski away from starting. Maybe there’s a short-term role where he works out of the bullpen, but I believe the Cubs see him as a starting pitcher long term.

Now, that obviously hinges on his ability to better command pitches that aren’t his sweeper. That’s undoubtedly his best pitch, but if he’s going to be an effective starter, he has to be able to command the rest of his repertoire. That’s especially true for his four-seam fastball. That was his most-used pitch before his was optioned to Iowa, and it was his preferred fastball to use against lefties. So, it’s an issue that he allowed a .415 average and a .736 slugging percentage with the pitch. And in turn, lefties hit .325 with a 1.028 OPS against him.

Wesneski had so much success during his month in the majors in 2022 that his struggles this season felt like a shock. But we need to remember that he’s still a rookie. Teams are still getting more data and putting together better scouting reports on him. Like any young pitcher who goes through these challenges, Wesneski has to figure out how to adjust back to the adjustments opponents have already made. I think he can do that.

Optioning him doesn’t mean the Cubs have given up on him as a starter. Not by a long shot. They know he has room for improvement, and it may be best for him to focus on specific things in a less stressful environment in Triple-A. Right now, he’s still a part of the team’s starting pitching depth, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

gaross18 asks: When will the Cubs call up Jake Slaughter? Also, who is another position player that has yet to make their major league debut who can get called up? Also, when is Cam Sanders getting the call?

I’ll try to run through these as quickly and fairly:

  • For Slaughter, you might have to wait a little while longer. I mean, he’s only got 133 plate appearances at Triple-A, and he’s not exactly putting up numbers like Christopher Morel did that the Cubs could no longer ignore. He’s also played the majority of his minor league games at first, second and third base. The way the roster is constructed now, there’s not much playing time available at first (Mervis and Trey Mancini), second (Nico Hoerner and Morel) or third (Patrick Wisdom, Nick Madrigal and Morel). Could a rash of injuries force the issue? Outside of that, I wouldn’t expect a call-up in the foreseeable future.
  • You probably wanted a less-obvious answer, but I think Brennen Davis is still a name to monitor. He hasn’t been great this year — just a 66 wRC+, though a .220 BABIP hasn’t helped — but he is healthy now and is also on the 40-man roster. Injuries in the outfield group probably have to come for that spot to open, and the Cubs definitely need to see a big bump in his production. Provided that sort of scenario happens, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Davis finally get the call that could’ve been on its way a year ago if not for his back injury.
  • I know Sanders was on the radar last year, and I’m sure he’s right there this year, too. The ERA (2.76) is solid, and the strikeout rate (33.7 percent) is impressive. But he’s also walking way too many people right now. His walk rate entering Friday is 27.7 percent. If he’s struggling with walks in Triple-A, that likely gets exposed even more in the big leagues. I’m thinking there could be some roster moves coming Friday, but I’m not expecting Sanders to be involved. If he can go on a nice stretch of appearances with few to no walks, though, I can definitely see him getting the call.

rickyford asks: What does this winter’s third-base free-agent class look like, mid-season trade, etc.?

As things stand now, I don’t see the Cubs making a mid-season splash for a third baseman, so I won’t even get into that part of the question. As far as how the upcoming third-base class looks, well… it’s not great. Right now, Matt Chapman is the top option there. He actually leads American League third baseman in defensive runs saved (4), and his 153 wRC+ ranks 11th in the majors. He’s in a class of his own among potential free-agent third base targets this offseason. Check out the rest of the names on this list provided by Spotrac.

As one of the top position players set to hit the market, Chapman is in line for a nice payday. The Chapman sweepstakes could go beyond where the Cubs are willing to go to sign him. Assuming that happens, I don’t know that they definitely go after anyone else on the market. Their internal third-base options are cheap and under control for the next few seasons. If they aren’t getting a big upgrade by signing Chapman, I see them running with their internal options and using the savings to improve elsewhere.

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