Yesterday I wrote the case for the Cubs buying at the trade deadline. They are talented, especially relative to the division. They are better, especially relative to recent years. You can just squint and make the case that another well-above .500 second half is looming and the the Cubs have great starting pitching, an improving bullpen and the only positive run differential in the division. Why can’t the Cubs at least try and make nods to a run at the division?
Well, today I’m here to burst that bubble. The 2023 Cubs are so close — yet so far away, and if we’ve learned anything about Jed Hoyer over the last few years it’s that he will always error on the side of caution.
Let’s start with the projections, which I’ve written about a few times now. They’ve been remarkably consistent for the Chicago Cubs this season. In the preseason, most projection systems saw the Cubs as a 74-78 win team. When I checked in on those number in mid-May the Cubs were still projected as a 77-79 win team. As of this morning FanGraphs projects the Cubs to a 77-85 season long record, PECOTA basically agrees with a 78.5-83.5 record (half wins aren’t a thing, so I’ll round that up to 79-83).
It’s a remarkably consistent tale for the Cubs. They are a slightly sub-.500 team. Exactly who we have seen so far at the corner of Clark and Addison. Contrary to what I wrote yesterday, they aren’t just a lefty arm or two in the pen away from competition, they probably need much more. The Brewers continue to hold the pole position for both of these projection systems with the surging Reds improving, but ultimately falling a bit short, right around .500:
The decision to sell is as much about the current performance and the chances a team has to make the playoffs as it is about the contracts on their books and the likelihood those players will wind up walking for nothing. The Cubs don’t have to look very far to see what happens when a team lets talented players walk with no compensation — that’s what the Chicago White Sox did with Carlos Rodón, and does anyone believe the White Sox underperforming at the end of their competitive window couldn’t have used even a compensatory pick for Rodón?
The Cubs have at least three players who are not guaranteed to be on the team next season who are performing well enough to net interesting prospects: Cody Bellinger, Marcus Stroman and Drew Smyly are all in the final-ish year of their deal. Yes, there are opt outs and options. Yes, theoretically this front office could extend those contracts or negotiate further with those players. But that negotiation goes both ways, and it’s unlikely they are going to get any of those three guys to stay for approximately the same amount of money they are being paid now. That’s the way this works, you perform well on a deal with an opt out and you opt out for more money. It’s a business.
Prospects aren’t promises, but I think we mostly agree that turning Javier Báez into Pete Crow-Armstrong is a reason the Cubs are close enough to contention in 2023 to even consider holding onto talented players like Stroman, Bellinger and Smyly for a shot to play in October. If those players will not be Cubs in 2024 and could net even one prospect that could help the next great Cubs team, Jed Hoyer and Co. need to consider trading them rather than holding on for a .500 finish.
The future (might be) brighter?
The best prospect for the Cubs in 2023 looks like the slim possibility of a division title and a probable quick exit from the playoffs. As I noted yesterday, an extra month and change of competitive baseball on the North Side of Chicago would certainly be a welcome development for Cubs fans who haven’t seen a playoff run in person in three years, but is it worth the Cubs attaining the next Ben Brown to help in a playoff push for 2024 or 2025? Is it worth missing out on a Crow-Armstrong who could be the difference between a future Division Championship or an early exit from the playoffs.
The bottom line is, going all in on a 10.2 percent chance to make the playoffs that has shown very little fluctuation over the first 89 games is probably not worth missing out an a guy who could join the rotation in a year or two, let alone a potential starter who could make a difference for the next five Cubs teams.
The Cubs have 17 games between now and the trade deadline. Only four are against a team with a winning record in 2023 (three against the Boston Red Sox at Wrigley Field this weekend and one against the Cincinnati Reds the day before the deadline). The other 13 games include three against a last place Nationals team, and 10 rivalry games against the woefully underperforming Cardinals and the White Sox. If the Cubs come out of those games with a similar hovering around .500 win percentage they’ve maintained most of the season the front office would be foolish to go all in on this season while getting nothing in return for the exceptional performances some of their players on expiring contracts have put up so far.