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Mike Tauchman’s game-saving catch for the Cubs on Friday in St. Louis might be the moment that officially reeled me back in.
Not that I think this team is a legitimate World Series contender, mind you. This is still a flawed team. One I think can make some noise, yes, but otherwise one I can’t see raising that trophy a few months from now.
So, when I say “reeled me back in,” I mean this team should get a shot to make some late-season magic.
With Friday’s 3-2 victory over the Cardinals, the Cubs have now won seven straight games (and 9 of their last 10). They’ve clawed to within 4 1/2 games back in the National League Central and 3 1/2 back in the NL Wild Card race. And they’re 52-51, officially moving above .500 for the first time since May 6, when they were 17-16.
A little over a week ago, when the Cubs lost the series opener at Wrigley Field to these same Redbirds, they were six games under .500 and 8 1/2 back in the division. That felt almost like the nail in the coffin. With just 10 games to go before the trade deadline, there was a lot of ground to make up. And considering nine of those games would be against the White Sox (their crosstown rival) and the Cardinals (their biggest rival of all), teams that always seem ready to break Cubs fans’ hearts, the end of their hopes to avoid another selloff seemed inevitable.
With the pressure on, though, these Cubs have figured out a way to win. They took the last three against the Cardinals at home, won both games at Guaranteed Rate Field have snagged the first two of the four-game set at Busch Stadium. Cubs manager David Ross has presented a simple objective whenever the trade deadline has been brought up — the team just needs to win ballgames and let the cards fall how they may. And the players have answered the call.
A couple of months ago, I brought up the trade deadline to Dansby Swanson. He didn’t want to comment that early on this year’s deadline, but he was open to talking about his experience in July 2021, when the Braves’ front office made additions to a middling, below .500 group that went on to win the World Series.
Did outsiders see Atlanta as contenders at the time? Not necessarily. But the front office did, and rather than sell at the deadline — which could’ve been the route they took considering the position they were — the brought in some help. The confidence shown by that front office helped galvanize that group as they caught fire in the second half.
“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 at the time. “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.'”
That’s why Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer should give this group the chance to go for it after the trade deadline.
Yes, their chances at winning a World Series this year appear pretty slim. But the Cubs’ 2023 season shouldn’t be seen as World Series-or-bust. They’re in what they hope to be the latter stages of their rebuild, and playing meaningful games in September should be the goal. They don’t need to take home the trophy this season to call it a successful step in the rebuilding phase.
Fans want to watch a team that’s worth watching. With the recent launch of Marquee Sports Network’s direct-to-consumer streaming product, fans want a good reason to pay their hard-earned money for it. Selling at the trade deadline — essentially waving the white flag on the last two months of the year — won’t make that happen.
That’s why the Cubs shouldn’t be sellers. They probably shouldn’t even try to thread the buy-and-sell needle. The front office came into this season talking about competing, and it always felt like a legitimate goal rather than front-office speak.
So, if that is the goal, then they can’t trade away their best pieces. Cody Bellinger has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball this month, and it would be tough for the Cubs to compete without someone performing like a superstar on both sides of the ball.
Marcus Stroman may be going through a rough stretch of starts, but he’s been reliable for the majority of his Cubs career. There’s every reason to believe he can turn things around, and like Bellinger, competing without a dependable starter who wants to pitch under the brightest lights wouldn’t be easy.
The ability to extend Bellinger a qualifying offer at the end of the season gives the Cubs a chance to recoup some value if he walks. They can’t do the same with Stroman, who can opt out of his deal at the end of the year, so they would risk losing him in free agency for nothing. But teams should be willing to take on that risk in the name of winning. Not everything has to be a business decision.
My opinion has always been that if the Cubs were in a position to sell, then they should. But if they were able to play their way back into the playoff race, and if they’re truly serious about competing, they should hold onto their best players and even make some minor additions at positions of need.
“I love the group of guys here,” Stroman said. “I’ve been saying that since I’ve been here. I feel like we all know what we’re capable of when we’re hot, and it’s just a matter of going out there and getting wins.”
After the All-Star break, Hoyer laid out his challenge for the team, as far as how to avoid the front office selling at the deadline: Make up ground on first place, and make up ground on .500. At the time, the Cubs were five games below .500 and seven games back in the division. Now, 15 days later, they have a positive record and have shaved 2 1/2 games off the deficit.
“It’s an opportunity to just embrace the situation where you’re playing meaningful baseball, and that’s really what we all want,” Nico Hoerner said. “You have the opportunity to win, you have the opportunity to have a team that’s pushing towards the end of the season. I mean, [the trade deadline] is a real factor and it’s something we’re all aware of, and I think we’ve handled it in a pretty mature way of controlling our end of it day by day. We’re giving it absolutely our all, and I would love, love to play with this group for an extended period and see what that looks like.”
The players have done their part in turning their season around. There’s obviously three games left before the deadline, but it seems they’ve done enough to show the front office they deserve a shot.
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