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The 2023 Cubs should be buyers at the trade deadline

Part one of the complicated case of the 2023 Chicago Cubs

Justin Steele pitching against Cleveland at Wrigley Field during the first half
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The All-Star Game is in the history books and while the baseball world marvels at Adley Rutschman switch hitting in the Home Run Derby or Adolis García and Randy Arozarena trading jaw dropping catches in the Midsummer Classic there are much more pressing matters at the corner of Clark and Addison. Specifically, the Chicago Cubs are sitting in third place, seven games behind the first place Reds and five games under .500 for the season with the trade deadline 20 days away. They are in the hunt — but barely, and could ultimately either be buyers or sellers when everything settles on August 1.

It’s a complicated competitive environment and there are excellent arguments on both sides. I am an old debate coach in addition to being a Cubs analyst and believe in the power of argument to clarify situations. To that end, I’ll make both cases over the next couple of days, but let’s start with the case for the Cubs to buy at the deadline.

Run differential

A glance at the standings shows the Cubs within striking distance of an upstart Reds team no one expected to be quite this good this soon. It also shows pretty clearly that by one of the most basic metrics of measuring teams against relative to one another the Cubs are the strongest team in the division:

NL Central standings w/ run differential

Run differential is a good proxy for a team’s true talent level, after all, scoring more runs than you allow the opposition to score is pretty much the name of the game. However, it’s not perfectly predictable, as this MLB glossary explains:

Examining a team’s run differential can help to identify teams that are overachieving and teams that are underachieving. While there have certainly been clubs that have finished a season with a winning record and a negative run differential — and vice versa — those teams are statistical outliers. Looking at a team’s run differential early in the season can prove instructive when trying to determine whether a club is capable of either sustaining a “hot” start or capable of rebounding from an early slump.

Like any stat, run differential has its limitations and is far from infallible. The team with the best run differential won’t always win the World Series. The 2016 Cubs (+252) did just that, but the 2017 Indians (+254) and 2018 Astros (+263) failed to do so. All three clubs won their respective divisions. Generally speaking, the stat is a good barometer for the overall talent of a given team. It is also closely tied to pythagorean winning percentage — another metric that aims to provide a truer glimpse of a team’s talent than raw winning percentage.

The run differentials in the NL Central suggest the Reds and Brewers should come back to earth a bit and the Cubs are underperforming. It would be reasonable to assume that whatever bad luck the Cubs have had that has led to underperformance in the first half could regress to a bit of overperformance in the second half.

Weak division

As you may have derived from all the negative run differentials the NL Central is not a strong division, in fact, it’s the second weakest division in baseball. The Reds are currently running away with the division on young vibes and fun — which I am here for — but they also have the 28th ranked starting pitching staff in MLB by ERA. The Milwaukee Brewers continue to trot out one of the weakest offenses in baseball, with a team wRC+ of 89 — 11 percent below league average at driving in runs — good for 25th in MLB.

Importantly, the Cubs have games left against the division leaders to potentially make up a lot of ground. They have seven games against the Reds and six games against the Brewers, including the final three games of the season, which will be played at Wrigley North. More than enough to keep it competitive if they can improve just a bit against the rest of their opponents.


We all talked about it heading into the season — the schedule for the Chicago Cubs was harder in the first half than the second half. The first half saw the Cubs play the juggernaut Tampa Bay Rays, the surprising Texas Rangers and Miami Marlins, the World Series Champion Astros and perennial contenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. While the second half has a handful of tough series against teams like the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks, it also contains the vast majority of the Cubs games against the A.L. Central (far and away the weakest division in baseball).

The 2022 Cubs were an above-.500 team in the second half after selling at the deadline largely on the back of a very similar schedule split. The 2022 squad went 35-57 in the first half before going 39-31 in the second half. That 2022 squad also had a -86 run differential backing up its true talent level as somewhere closer to the first half results. The 2023 squad is both in a better position relative to the rest of their division and has demonstrated they can go on a run in the second half, it would be worthwhile to see them do it with reinforcements.


The starting pitching for the Cubs has been excellent, and the upgraded defense behind pitch to contact guys like Marcus Stroman, Drew Smyly, Kyle Hendricks and Justin Steele has worked exactly as planned. The Cubs starters have the 10th best ERA in baseball after the break, and that include Jameson Taillon’s abysmal start to the 2023 season.

Plus, most of the team’s underperformance has stemmed from a chaotic bullpen that didn’t see David Ross settle on his circle of trust (Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay) until late in the first half. Adding bullpen arms (lefties, please) isn’t exactly going to break the farm system, and the Cubs don’t have many other holes. This isn’t a team that needs two starters and a power bat at the deadline — they need a couple of left-handed bullpen guys and the starters to keep doing what they are doing.

Fans deserve it

This is likely the least compelling argument to Jed Hoyer & Co., but if there is any chance that the Cubs can make a run in the second half the front office should error on the side of competitive baseball at Wrigley Field this summer.

The fanbase is clearly exhausted from back-to-back selloffs at the deadline, and let’s be honest, the playoff run in 2020 didn’t have a real postseason baseball vibe to it. Cubs fans pay some of the highest prices in baseball to watch this club at the Federal Landmark that is Wrigley Field, and it’s galling to continue to pay those prices when the product on the field is lackluster.

This offseason saw the Cubs add real impact talent in Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger. Resigning Drew Smyly has worked out as well as could be expected and if Jameson Taillon unlocked something against the Yankees (far and away his best start of the year) the Cubs could really have a shot at the division. I’d happily give up the $6 weekday tickets to see the Cubs if it meant I would be watching a competitive team at the corner of Clark and Addison for the first time in three seasons. Cubs fans are itching to fill up the Friendly Confines for a playoff run in September — add some bullpen arms and give us a reason to root for the Cubbies down the stretch.