ST. LOUIS – There is no gray area 72 hours ahead of the trade deadline when a big-market franchise has a winning record, a seven-game winning streak, a positive run differential, and traction in the division and wild-card races. The Cubs are looking to add major-league talent.
Those potential deals could take different shapes and forms. Marcus Stroman’s ability to opt out of his contract after this season, combined with the “TBD” plans for Drew Smyly and Hayden Wesneski, have sparked curiosity about what the Cubs are doing with their pitching staff. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer doesn’t see any upside in making any public declarations until after Tuesday’s 5 p.m. CT deadline. You never know what might come out of the next phone call or text message.
The fundamentals of this team are solid, backed by projections and investments made by the front office and ownership. The Cubs consistently play hard for manager David Ross and generally listen to the coaching staff. The players, though not a boisterous group, say they have good chemistry and strong belief in the clubhouse.
The rotation has two All-Stars in Stroman and Justin Steele plus a rejuvenated Kyle Hendricks. The bullpen is improving but incomplete, in need of at least an experienced left-handed reliever. Gold Glove defense at multiple positions shouldn’t go into slumps. The post-2016 World Series frustrations with the offense – an all-or-nothing approach, a lineup that’s too easy to pitch to, too many consecutive zeros on the scoreboard – haven’t been there recently. Another right-handed hitter would help during the final two months of the season, when the Cubs have a softer schedule filled with trade-deadline sellers.
Has Hoyer signaled to Ross that the Cubs are going into buy mode?
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Ross said Saturday at Busch Stadium. “I’ve never sat in that seat, so it’s speculation, but it just feels like there’s probably a lot of different avenues that every team works through and conversations that everybody has: ‘If this happens, then that happens. What are the needs? What are the pieces?’ They work through all that. There’s budget stuff that they deal with, and stuff that I have no idea about. It just feels like there’s a lot of variability to it. A lot of balls in the air.”
The Cubs are in win-now mode, playing with the requisite skill, urgency and focus. Forget about surplus value and remember what teams do this close to a playoff spot. Mike Tauchman’s spectacular catch might be the moment they became trade-deadline buyers. https://t.co/ULZtcTWP5J
— Patrick Mooney (@PJ_Mooney) July 29, 2023
Around the trade deadline, questions to on-field personnel are often framed around the us-vs.-them mentality of showing the front office that the club deserves reinforcements. But the lines between the front office and the coaching staff are blurry when the Cubs talk about their “pitching infrastructure.” Every player on the 40-man roster was acquired while Hoyer was the No. 1 or No. 2 executive in baseball operations. Outside of a bad May, the Cubs can point to three winning months as proof that their 2023 plan is working.
“They want to win, we want to win,” Ross said. “I definitely think the group has proven the capability of playing really good baseball and making up ground. I know Jed has said to you guys (in the media) that chasing down .500 was important. We’re definitely closer to that than we were. There’s a lot of positivity all around.”
Ross doesn’t want a 52-51 team to get too comfortable. The Cubs were 3 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot and trailing the first-place Brewers by 4 1/2 games before storms delayed the start of Saturday’s game against the Cardinals. The manager is also reluctant to discuss his wish list for the trade deadline because that reflects on the 26-man roster.
“Does it feel good when the front office goes out and gets a piece? Of course,” Ross said. “Every team would say that. Every player would say that. I don’t pretend to not think that pieces help. Every team probably has areas they want to improve. When you get to do that, that’s great. You just have to kind of wait and see. The tough part about the trade deadline is trying to continue to see the positives in (your group) and (understand) the things you need to do looking ahead. Worrying about that other stuff is just kind of out of your control.”
The Cubs can keep their top prospects off-limits in trade talks and still upgrade their bullpen and add a hitter who would fit in the bottom of their lineup or off the bench. Trading some prospects for immediate help is another way to create value and plan for the future, given the limitations around the 40-man roster, minor-league options and Rule 5 draft eligibility. Only three more days to go.
“Players have questions,” Ross said. “It’s reassuring them that if we continue to go out and do what we’re doing – play good baseball and rack up wins – then good things are going to happen. That’s all we need to know. We need to focus on the game.”
(Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)