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A year ago at this time, the Cubs weren’t necessarily all-in on going into full-on sell mode. A four-game losing streak had them four games behind the division-leading Brewers on June 28, 2021, but they were still five games over .500 (42-37) and a change in fortune could’ve gotten them right back into it.
Ultimately, the next seven games featured seven more losses that extended the streak to 11, and whether or not the front office’s mind was already made up before, that was the nail in the coffin on that window of contention.
In 2022, it didn’t take until June 28 before the another trade deadline sale became the expectation for the Cubs. Despite anything said to the contrary, this was always supposed to be another season where the Cubs would be sellers at the deadline, unless just about everything went right for the team. That clearly hasn’t been the case. With Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to the Reds, the Cubs matched their season-high by falling 18 games below .500.
Last season, the Cubs weren’t that far under .500 until Aug. 22, a little over three weeks after the trade deadline. Clearly, the decision to sell came well before then, so you have to believe that the decision to do the same this season was made well before now. That hasn’t changed the teams approach on a game-by-game basis, starting with the skipper whose job it is to keep the Cubs as on track as possible as they inch toward another cycle of the roster.
“I stay in the moment and try to take care of today, and that’s all we can control,” manager David Ross said over the weekend. “Until (trades happen), I’m just worried about supporting the guys, having conversations of how we win that day. There’s so much more that I’m working through on a daily basis that that doesn’t really have time to enter.”
Tuesday actually marked somewhat of an important day on the calendar, as it came exactly five weeks prior to the trade deadline on Aug. 2. With the Cubs almost certain to part ways with some of the players on the roster, it’s worth taking a look at where some of those possible trade candidates stand as July approaches.
The sure-fire All-Star
Willson Contreras has been the subject of rampant trade speculation pretty much as far back as last season’s deadline. Not that he was in any real danger of getting traded in 2021, but there was certainly talk then about how his situation would look when the deadline came in 2022.
Contreras has said from the beginning that he wouldn’t allow trade speculation to be a distraction for him this season. To those around him, that’s been the case ever since spring training started in March.
“Willson has been in a really good place just mentally, been the same guy every single day,” Ross said. “I almost think he’s probably more relaxed this year.”
His play on the field has shown it. He’s having arguably his best season at the plate in his seven-year career (his 148 wRC+ is by far his highest ever), and as of MLB.com’s last update on Monday, he’s leading the ballot for this year’s All-Star Game by almost half-a-million votes. And if he’s going to the Midsummer Classic, he wants to do it in the only jersey he’s ever worn at the big league level.
“To wear the Cubs jersey at the All-Star Game, I’m proud of that,” Contreras said. “This is my house. This is my home. It’s been my home for 14 years, and I don’t think many players can say that.”
Not that the sentimentality of the situation will affect what the front office will do over the next few weeks. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and Co. dealt World Series champions Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez and Kris Bryant within a 24-hour period at the 2021 deadline, which came months after the team didn’t even tender Kyle Schwarber a contract following the 2020 season.
As the number of “top trade candidate” articles increases, Contreras remains near the top of those lists. His name has been mentioned for teams looking to make a playoff push or World Series contenders looking to add another big-time bat to the lineup. Just based on recent history, it’s tough to envision a scenario where the Cubs don’t deal Contreras for what should be nice return package.
But, as always, Contreras remains steadfast in saying that the trade deadline, no matter how close it gets, won’t be something he’s worried about.
“That has nothing to do with the person that I want to be in the clubhouse,” Contreras said of the outside noise surrounding his future. “I know that those types of things are right there, but I’m not letting them bother me. I’m trying to be the same person every single day for my teammates and do the best job I can to help this team win.”
The under-the-radar outfielder
If there’s one player who is a more surprising trade candidate this season, it’s likely Ian Happ.
Happ has been playing at an All-Star level this year. Despite earning the 15th most votes as of the most recent ballot update, Happ is among the top five qualified National League outfielders in categories nearly across the board. A down month of May hurt his stock a bit, but he’s since bounced back with a June that’s seen him hit .312/.387/.516 with 12 extra-base hits and 10 RBIs. For someone who’s seen his fair share of hot stretches lead to cool downs since he debuted in 2017, this is more of the kind of extended success — especially when you consider his last seven or so weeks of ’21, too — that had eluded him in his career.
“It’s being out there every day,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that I’ve done to this point in my career that’ve gotten me to where I feel comfortable in the box day in and day out. Just being able to be out there every single day and prove that I can do it at this level. I think that’s the big part of it.”
That All-Star level of play, however, is exactly why his name has been getting thrown around more in trade rumors as the deadline nears. Happ has hit the ball well from both sides of the plate in what has so far amounted to a career year for him, and his defense has been much improved since he found a home in left field. One of the things that might look even more valuable to potential suitors, though, is the fact that he is still under club control for one more season. It could certainly help ease a partner’s resistance to a trade knowing that Happ wouldn’t be just a two-month rental.
Happ admits, like some other teammates have before, that “it’s nice to be wanted” by another organization that might see him as someone who can contribute to a winner. However, he’s also never wavered from the fact that he wants to remain in Chicago and continue to play with the team that drafted him.
“It’s something that’s always there. You’re not going to run away from it,” Happ said of the trade rumors. “But I’m super happy here being a Cub. I would love to continue that.”
Happ is in a different position than Contreras is with the extra year of team control, so it is possible the Cubs look to keep Happ past this deadline and either work on an extension or hope he can continue to produce and keep up his trade value for next year. Regardless, his play so far has certainly given buyers something to consider over the next few weeks.
Back when he spoke to reporters on May 19, Hoyer described his approach to the trade deadline and what would make the Cubs not sell this season.
“Evaluating where we are, evaluating our division and where we are playoff-wise,” he said. “And then, obviously, you’re taking a look into the next few years, as well. There are certain pieces that are quote-unquote ‘rentals’ that may not be back, but there’s certain pieces that you get asked about that are a part of your future, and you want to think about where you are over the next few years.”
Based on the fact that the Cubs are 14 games back in the NL Central and 13 1/3 games out of the last NL Wild Card spot, not a whole lot of of evaluating needs to be done anymore — selling at the deadline is the expectation for the team this season. Chief among the trade options are those “rentals” that Hoyer referred to, and more specifically, the group of veterans arms who all could be flipped by Aug. 2: David Robertson, Mychal Givens, Chris Martin, Wade Miley and Drew Smyly.
Robertson, Givens and Martin are this season’s version of Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Tepera and Andrew Chafin as three veteran relievers who could help bolster a team’s bullpen during a playoff run. Each were brought in on cheap, short-term deals (Givens is the only one with a mutual option for 2023), and those contracts would seem to be easily movable if the time comes.
Robertson, in particular, has become one of the biggest trade assets the Cubs have, as the 37-year-old has recorded a 1.86 ERA, has completed nine of 12 save opportunities and owns a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was part of a deadline deal in 2017 that saw him go from the White Sox to the Yankees (his second stint in the Bronx) and help that team reach the World Series, so he knows what the process is like.
“You just never know. Things happen,” Robertson said. “A certain organization could lose a player and need a replacement really quickly and is in a position to move prospects, and another team is willing to move a veteran and add prospects. That happens. It’s just part of it.”
Robertson said that he’s grateful for the chance to pitch for the Cubs, but he also understands the business of the game when a playoff team wants to reinforce its bullpen.
“If that’s happening, if another organization is looking to add me to their bullpen, there’s a reason they want me there,” Robertson said. “It’s just one of those things that, like, if you get moved, you get moved. I still love being here. I love the opportunity this organization gave me. The city of Chicago is great, but it’s their option to move me.”
As for Miley and Smyly, trading them might be a tougher process. Smyly hasn’t pitched since leaving Game 2 of the Memorial Day doubleheader against the Brewers after three innings, being placed on the 15-day injured list two days later (retroactive to May 31) with a right oblique strain. Meanwhile, Miley last pitched on June 10, also lasting just three innings before coming out of the game. That was the same day he had been activated from the IL after spending a month dealing with a left shoulder strain, and just a day later, he was back on the IL with the same injury.
Smyly is closer to returning, having thrown a 32-pitch, two-inning, simulated session of live batting practice on Tuesday. Ross said the team would have to see how Smyly’s body responds on Wednesday before determining the next steps for his recovery. Miley was still just playing catch on Tuesday himself, though, and there’s still no set timetable for his return. So while the group of veteran relievers’ movement appears to be set, if the Cubs are indeed intent on trading Miley and Smyly, they will need to get at least a few outings apiece before they can seriously shop the two around to potential partners.
The bat potentially on the move
After a torrid last month-plus that has seen him hit .326 with an .890 OPS in his past 31 games, Rafael Ortega has put himself in position to be another bat other teams might start calling Hoyer about over the next few weeks.
Since he made his Cubs debut on May 26, 2021, Ortega has recorded a 119 wRC+ while hitting .283 with an .801 OPS. He’s been on even more of a tear against right-handed pitchers in that time, as the numbers balloon to 131, .301 and .852, respectively, when a righty is on the mound.
The issue comes with Ortega’s age and the timing of what could be the Cubs’ next competitive window. At 31 years old, Ortega doesn’t figure to be part of “The Next Great Cubs Team,” even if it arrives by 2024 at the earliest. But what he could be now is part of another team looking to add someone who can reliably play all three outfield spots while providing a bat that works well in a platoon.
That wouldn’t come with the Cubs, but Ortega knows the way he’s played has been beneficial in terms of showing other clubs what exactly he can do.
“I’ve seen what’s happened,” Ortega said through team interpreter Will Nadal. “I’ve said it before as well, I don’t just play for my team. I also play for the other (29) teams that are here, that are looking.”
He’s not necessarily worried about the trade deadline. He doesn’t see this time as a tryout for other teams, but he does know that playoff teams value some of what he brings to the table. Whether it’s providing outfield depth or moving into a platoon hitting role, if Ortega keeps doing what he’s doing, it’s quite possible he might also find himself wearing a different jersey come Aug. 3.
“I’m just controlling what I can,” Ortega said. “I’ve seen it before with other players. If another team might be interested in me, it would be an honor for me. It would be something that I would be excited about, but I’m just taking care of my business, controlling things that I can day in and day out.”
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