On Thursday, I had an epiphany.
Earlier in the day, I had told a relative I thought Cubs president Jed Hoyer was still going to sell, sell, sell by the trade deadline. I wasn’t fooled by the team’s recent winning streak, and if someone like me could stay level-headed, I imagine Hoyer would do the same.
But around the time the Cubs won to finally get back to .500 by beating St. Louis, I changed my mind. The Cubs might not be buyers, but they weren’t going to be sellers either.
Across town, White Sox GM Rick Hahn has traded two starting pitchers and three relievers to contending teams in three days. His team had no hope.
But the Cubs players, along with some extenuating business concerns, have all but forced Hoyer’s hand — if not to add, then also not give up.
Yes, the Cubs got themselves back to even by beating up on the sad-sack Cardinals and the “Pedro’s Boys Have Kinda Quit” White Sox, but now they find themselves within spitting distance of the playoffs with the trade deadline at hand.
Hoyer built this team for flexibility and possibly for confusion. Maybe they’d be good enough to compete, but if not, part of it could be easily disassembled for valuable parts. The idea is that you’d know for sure which way this team was going when it came time to make a decision, but that hasn’t been the case.
The Cubs ambled along for much of the season, and it looked pretty clear that Hoyer would be trading Cody Bellinger, Marcus Stroman and expendable pitchers for prospects by Aug. 1.
But after the Cubs lost three of four after the All-Star break to drop to 43-50, they started beating up on bad teams and won eight of nine games to get back to .500 for the first time since May 12.
They won two over Washington by a combined score of 25-6. They won three out of four against the Cardinals, swept a two-game crosstown series over the Sox and won the first game of a four-game series in St. Louis.
Break up the Cubs? Maybe not.
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Going into Friday’s game, they were 5 1/2 games back of the division-leading Brewers and four back of the third spot in the wild-card race, though still behind three teams. With a 22 percent chance to make the playoffs, per PECOTA, these facts don’t portend the Cubs adding talent.
Hoyer isn’t dumb and he’s not desperate, so any additions to this roster will be minor ones. In his heart, I bet he’d rather trade Stroman, Bellinger and anyone else who could actually bring back surplus value.
Both Stroman and Bellinger are going into free agency. Stroman has a player option on his contract and Bellinger has a mutual option. Each of them has played their way into a nice payday this offseason.
The Cubs don’t seem eager to pay Stroman, who will be 33 early next season, but I’m guessing they’ll be engaged on Bellinger.
The Cubs needed starting pitching when they signed Stroman just before the lockout in 2021. Given the position the Cubs were in last offseason, signing Bellinger to a deal in which he could opt out after a year only made sense if they thought there was a good chance he’d play well and they could flip him for prospects. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to rent a guy like that for a year when your team isn’t going to be really competitive, though the Cubs will get a compensatory pick if he declines a qualifying offer, which isn’t nothing.
But maybe Hoyer just wanted to field a competitive team in a bridge year and hope they could make the playoffs in a down year for the NL Central. In reality, the Cubs should have a better record where selling wouldn’t even be a conversation.
While the Cubs have underperformed for much of the season, Bellinger has been better than advertised. He should be the prize of the deadline. Instead, I think he sticks around, hitting bombs for a team that still feels destined to finish in third place in the NL Central.
And it’s not just because the Cubs have won enough since the All-Star break to keep this team intact.
I have a valid conspiracy theory as to why the Cubs will keep him and Stroman and everyone else and try to make the rest of the season interesting even if there’s not much of a chance of it working out.
Let’s go back to November 2010 in Boston. After that season, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein sat in on a meeting with the team’s RSN executives and some consultants to discuss low ratings.
In an interview for Terry Francona’s 2013 book, Epstein said, “They told us we didn’t have any marketable players, the team’s not exciting enough. We need some sizzle. We need some sexy guys. I was laughing to myself. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. This is like an absurdist comedy.”
Flash forward to today. I can’t imagine anyone at the Marquee Sports Network telling Hoyer what to do, but with Marquee finally introducing a direct-to-consumer option for in-market subscriptions, it certainly would make people there, and especially on the Cubs’ business side, happy to have a product worth subscribing to. Imagine trying to sell DTC subs the rest of the season after the team trades away its best players. It’s just not good business, is it? Beyond this year, the Cubs want to make a major DTC push in 2024. They need momentum to make money.
And as we all know, all the cash that makes its way to president Crane Kenney’s wheelbarrow then winds up in Hoyer’s budget. (After expenses, of course.) If I’m Hoyer, I’d rather have more cash to spend than additional prospects right now. So in that sense, not selling could pay off.
I’m not saying this is going to turn into Shohei Ohtani money, let’s be serious, but maybe the Cubs will make a run at a power-hitting center fielder who recently showed he’s still got it.
What’s his name again? Cody Something.
Cubs’ priority should be getting Marcus Stroman on track for playoff race, not trading him
(Photo of Cody Something: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)