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Cubs selling at another trade deadline would be a missed opportunity

Ryan Avatar
June 9, 2023

A couple of weeks back, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer was pretty upfront in stating that, while it was still early in terms of you trade deadline fate being sealed, you can’t just keep saying “it’s early” forever.

“I feel like if you look at our season, we played great early against really tough teams, and then lost a lot of close games in a stretch that we should’ve won a lot more games, and that obviously hurt us,” Hoyer said on May 23. “I think that last road trip [from May 12-21], no matter how good you are, you go on that road trip, it’s hard to make up a lot of ground. It’s hard to make up ground in certain tough stretches of your season. Ultimately, when I look back at our season, I think kind of having that run of one-run losses really knocked us back.

“We’re going to have to dig out from that, but the nature of baseball is you can’t put too much pressure on any one section of the season. But I do think that, yes, it’s not ‘early’ forever, and we need to bank some wins.”

The Cubs beat the Mets a few hours after Hoyer talked, and they finished that day 4 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central and three back of an NL Wild Card spot. Fast forward to now, and the situation looks even more bleak.

They’re a season-low 10 games under .500 (26-36), 7 1/2 games back in the division and 6 1/2 out of the Wild Card heading into Friday’s action. Their .419 winning percentage is the fourth-worst in the NL and the sixth-worst in Major League Baseball. Even their crosstown-rival White Sox, who were 7-21 after a late-April 10-game losing streak, have now moved ahead in the major league standings.

After the Cubs finished off a series win over the Padres on April 27, they were 14-10 and had a 27.9 percent chance to make the playoffs (per FanGraphs). After getting swept out of Angel Stadium, those odds have fallen all the way to 7.2 percent. In a season where they were supposed to be a more competitive ballclub, in a season where the best team in the division is still only five games over .500 and most Wild Card contenders are still hovering around .500, the Cubs are only three games better than they were at this point in the 2022 season.

Let’s not rewrite history and say the Cubs making the playoffs was the expectation going into this season. Things were going to have to break right for them to get there. Dansby Swanson was going to have to live up to the $177 million contract he signed last winter (so far he has), veteran additions like Trey Mancini, Michael Fulmer and Brad Boxberger were supposed to help raise the floor (overall that hasn’t been the case) and youngsters like Matt Mervis and Christopher Morel were supposed to contribute when they eventually joined the big league team (outside of Morel’s electric first 12 games back, they’ve struggled). Clearly, most things haven’t broken right.

It’s hard to put much of that blame on the rotation. They’ve taken their lumps, of course, and Jameson Taillon is 0-for-10 in quality start attempts, but led by All-Star level performances by Marcus Stroman and Justin Steele and very solid production from Drew Smyly, they have one of the best rotations in the league. Overall heading into Friday, they hold the NL’s:

  • Third-lowest rotation ERA (3.94)
  • Fifth-lowest FIP (4.03)
  • Second-lowest WHIP (1.21)
  • Lowest barrel rate (6.4 percent) and hard-hit rate (34.8 percent)

In terms of Win Probability Added, the rotation’s 0.78 leads the NL. So, it’s really not all that much on the starters this season.

Along with a bullpen devoid of arms with long track records of high-leverage success — which has made it volatile all season — the offense has just not been productive recently. Not that cherry-picking a set of games is the best route to go down, but May 19 was the last time the Cubs reached double-digit runs in a game, so we’ll look at the stretch beginning with May 20. In that time, the Cubs own MLB’s:

  • Lowest WRC+ (63)
  • Lowest wOBA (.264)
  • Lowest OPS (.577)
  • Second-highest strikeout rate (28.6 percent)

They’re still walking at the second-best rate (10.7 percent) in that time, and their major league-worst BABIP (.245) means they’ve had some bad luck, but it’s overall been a tough stretch for the offense.

Maybe adding Cody Bellinger back into the fold soon — reports out of Anaheim said he’s heading to Arizona to build up before going on a rehab assignment — can bring a spark. Maybe three of their top four batters — Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner and Seiya Suzuki — can break out of their collective slump (since May 20, none have a wRC+ above 74). Heck, maybe getting Justin Steele back (Cubs manager David Ross told reporters he’s aiming to return on June 17) will allow them to lean on the pitching staff more than the bats.

However they do it, a turnaround needs to happen soon. June is an important month as far as buying or selling at the deadline goes, and it just hasn’t been a good start.

Considering how the rest of the NL has performed, selling at the deadline rather than being in the playoff hunt is nothing but a missed opportunity.

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