Cubs’ trade deadline dilemma: Is there long-term value in staying the course?

CHICAGO — Opinions around baseball are shifting as to what the Cubs will do at the trade deadline. With every win the Cubs stack up — they’ve now rattled off four straight and six of seven following Tuesday night’s 7-3 victory over the White Sox — the sell-off that seemed so assured just a week ago may not be as obvious a decision for team president Jed Hoyer. Not yet at least.

On the face of it all, it’s natural for fans to want the Cubs to keep players who are thriving. This team needs lefties in the lineup and is in desperate need of power. Cody Bellinger provides that. And after trading away Yu Darvish prior to the 2021 season, the Cubs finally have a stable force at the front of the rotation with Marcus Stroman. Why take a step back once again?

Many fans don’t care about impending free agency. They’re tired of hearing about prospects. They want results on the field at the big-league level. Players like Stroman and Bellinger will help with that now. Patiently waiting for future success, especially when it’s been promised before with mixed results, isn’t easy to do.

Manager David Ross has been a part of two straight summer sell-offs. He understands the front office has a lot to consider both now and in the future. But he also continues to show belief in this group of players.

“I want to be the manager of a World Series team, the guys out there on the field want to win a World Series,” Ross said. “I think that’s what we’re all pushing for. How do we do that? We try to win every single game and every single pitch. That’s what I’m focused on. The more we keep the good players, the closer (we get) to doing that this season.”

The Cubs celebrate after beating the White Sox on Tuesday night. (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA TODAY Sports)

The Cubs’ business side certainly doesn’t want to have to deal with dwindling attendance numbers in August and September. It wouldn’t look good for them to trade the core players featured on Marquee Network a week after they announce their much-anticipated direct-to-consumer product.

Ross sees merit in sticking with this group regardless of what happens.

“I believe there’s always value in belief around the group,” Ross said. “Whether that comes from the group itself, whether that comes from outside the group. Having confidence and sending the right messages every single day from the coaching staff all the way through the organization of what you believe in — sure, there’s value in that.”

Even if it doesn’t end in a postseason appearance, veteran Dansby Swanson believes keeping this team together is important.

“Any time you can build camaraderie and chemistry with guys it’s special,” Swanson said. “Definitely some new pieces, me being one of them this year. Everyone’s been very open and welcoming to each of us new guys. Just really being able to build some chemistry with one another on the playing field and clubhouse is special. You never take moments like this for granted.”

That’s not something that’s easily created in spring training. New additions need time to settle into a new environment. Continually turning over the roster can cause uneasiness among the group and put unnecessary pressure on those who just arrived, especially those with big contracts.

But those are intangibles that are often cured by collecting a lot of talent and paying great players. And Hoyer isn’t one to weigh those soft factors heavily, not when making decisions like the one that faces him over the next week. Hoyer will choose to be dispassionate at this moment. This will be a decision based on wins and losses.

Yes, the team’s record doesn’t match the underlying metrics. There is data that suggests this team should be significantly better than just two games under .500. So sticking with this team — or even acquiring some players who could fill some holes — would show action behind the words Hoyer has already uttered.

“When you look at a lot of underlying numbers, we absolutely should be in the division race right now,” Hoyer said two weeks ago. “That’s the truth of the matter.”

Hoyer has repeatedly reiterated that the Cubs need to translate that into wins, otherwise it’s all meaningless. But he clearly believes this group has the potential to make a playoff push. He also understands the risk of hoping the team starts performing better and seeing them fall short. The Cubs are inching closer in both the division (six games back) and wild card (five games back). They look like a better team of late, have done what they’ve needed to do by beating up on lesser competition, and face a weak schedule in the coming months. But none of that guarantees a postseason berth.

Would Hoyer be kicking himself if his team is sitting out October after holding on to two prime trade chips? Perhaps. Considering it appears to be a seller’s market and Stroman and Bellinger are two of the prime targets for many contenders, he’d likely be missing out on some quality pieces for his farm system, and maybe even some players who could help the team immediately.

But keeping Bellinger would allow the Cubs to extend him a qualifying offer, perhaps keeping the potential market for him slightly subdued and allowing them to have a better chance at re-signing him. It would also allow them to recoup some lost value should they ultimately not be able to bring him back in 2024 and beyond. On the other hand, Stroman has already received a qualifying offer in his career, so not trading him and then losing him in free agency would mean the Cubs come away with nothing tangible should they fall short of the postseason.

After the World Series win in 2016, Theo Epstein’s teams were bought in on a group that had proven they could do it before. After parting with the little prospect depth they had left at the 2018 and 2019 deadlines, both teams sputtered at the finish. Epstein likely lamented that those struggles came in September instead of July, keeping him from reloading a farm that was on a downward trajectory.

Hoyer doesn’t want to find himself in the same position. He can find more pitching next winter in a free-agent class filled with it. If the team falters this next week, he can move Bellinger and aggressively pursue him in the offseason when agent Scott Boras surely takes him to free agency.

Hoyer isn’t going to be dissuaded from selling to keep the business side happy or to assuage agitated fans. He’ll put up with frustrated players who may have believed a run was possible if it means he got the right type of players in return at the deadline. There’s a winter’s worth of work he can put in to get them back on his side.

The only thing that can change his mind is wins. This last week has seen six of them in seven games. If the Cubs can keep up that pace, perhaps they can stave off the sale and show Hoyer what they really can do.

“I guess that’s fun for you all to write about,” Swanson said, “and fun for us to make their job challenging.”

(Photo of Dansby Swanson: Melissa Tamez / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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