The Cubs have lost three straight, but they’re still third in the division behind the Brewers and Reds on the strength of winning 11 of 13 games prior to this latest hiccup. Everyone knew the NL Central was going to be a weak division and we’re seeing that bear out even if the Cardinals are playing far worse than anyone could have dreamed. That much has been enjoyable even if the Cubs haven’t always been.
As for what the Cubs will do the rest of the way, that will depend largely on how they finish the first half and start the second. With a stretch of games against the Guardians, Brewers, and Yankees leading them into the All-Star break, it’s not impossible that Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins could grow much more receptive to calls about their available players.
On the other hand, the Cubs have played well against good teams and could hit another hot streak that sees them pushing closer to the surprising Reds. That’s what Hoyer hoped for in May and it’s what Hawkins is excited about seeing develop over the next few weeks.
“It definitely put us back in contention, and it’s been a lot more fun,” Hawkins told the media prior to Wednesday’s loss when asked about their recent play. “We know we’ve got a lot of baseball left before the deadline coming up, but certainly we’re in a lot better position than we were three weeks ago.”
While it’s true the Cubs are playing a better brand of baseball for the most part, or were prior to a Trey Mancini flub in London that looks like the nexus of their lethargy of late, they haven’t put themselves in a definitive position yet. An excited Tom Ricketts told the faithful gathered at a fan event in London last Tuesday that the Cubs were “obviously” buyers at that point, though he quickly tempered that.
The team chairman cautioned that things could “come off the rails,” then doubled back by saying no one in the organization thought that would happen. As for specifics of acting like a contender, like extending Marcus Stroman, Ricketts predictably put everything on Hoyer. Stroman has spoken about wanting to remain in Chicago and even tweeted that he and his agent have tried to engage the front office, but the club remains mum as it always has in these matters.
It’s all a balancing act, one with an amorphous fulcrum that can’t be defined by something as simple as how many games the Cubs sit below .500 or how far they are from the division lead. Those things are important, sure, but there’s much more nuance involved.
“At the end of the day, you’re making a decision around this year’s playoff odds and future year’s playoff odds,” Hawkins explained. “And so, certainly, the exact record that you have doesn’t really matter if you get it down to that granular level.
“But from a heuristic standpoint, it just doesn’t feel very comfortable being under .500 and saying, ‘Hey, we’re in a super competitive position.’”
More like a Hoyeristic standpoint, amirite?
You can look it up if you want, but Hawkins is effectively saying they may have to operate somewhat on faith and push forward with buy-moves even if standard trial-and-error rationale says that’s pretty risky. There’s also the matter of making ownership happy, which, sorry to break this to some of you, isn’t necessarily a matter of cutting payroll.
Consider that the Cubs just opened their DraftKings Sportsbook immediately adjacent to Wrigley Field on Tuesday and announced plans to launch Marquee Sports Network as a stand-alone in-market streaming option at some point in July. After two rebuilding years that saw the Cubs selling at the deadline, there could not be a worse marketing plan than punting on the second half in a third straight season.
Not that we should put anything past a business operations department that has such a flawed track record when it comes to PR and timing.
The Cubs need to be buyers at the deadline if for no other reason than they have to be sellers of their own brand, a brand that has become quite tarnished since winning it all in 2016. Sure, there are still plenty of rubes who are happy to fly across the pond and spend fortunes buying Cubs crap festooned with the Union Jack, but how many people want to pay $20/month or more for a channel that broadcasts intentional losing?
One thing I want to note here when it comes to the idea of the Cubs buying is that you should go ahead and erase any notion that they’ll part with Pete Crow-Armstrong. That dude is legit and he’s now No. 9 in MLB Pipeline’s top 100, with two of the guys above him already in the bigs. He could be up this year yet, but he’s almost certainly going to break camp with the club next season and will be in center for the foreseeable future.
Aside from that, the Cubs have lots of other talented — and more redundant — players who could be moved in order to strengthen the bullpen or acquire a much-needed power hitter for the stretch run. I know a lot of you will say they shouldn’t buy if they can’t become World Series contenders, but that’s pretty silly. Were the Ronald Acuña Jr.-less Braves perceived as having title aspirations when they acquired Joc Pederson in 2021?
The answer is no, by the way. In fact, the Braves made that move so early in part because they were prepared to flip Pederson and others if they didn’t turn things around.
Besides, it’s not about trying to win it all this season. The goal is to continue getting better while maintaining or growing the faith among fans that the team is worth giving enough of a shit about to keep shelling out money. Regardless of your level of pessimism about the motivations and machinations of Ricketts and Co., it only makes sense at this point for the Cubs to be buyers at the deadline.