01 August, 2023
The Chicago Cubs fell to the Washington Nationals on July 17 to fall to 43-50 after allowing a two-run home run to Jeimer Candelario in the first inning. With three straight losses coming out of the All-Star break, their postseason chances plummeted to just 6%, and they appeared ready to offload important players like Cody Bellinger before the trade deadline.
Instead, they made a trade for Candelario on Monday to bolster a club that has dropped three games in a row.
Don’t sell Marcus Stroman or Bellinger, who briefly seemed to place Chicago as the hub for the most important players to be traded this week. The Cubs have switched from full-on selling to full-on purchasing after snapping a winning streak that had them back at 53-52 with 27.4% postseason odds when news of the Candelario transaction surfaced on Monday. Surprisingly, they might end up signing the best position player to switch teams at this deadline rather than trading for him. Candelario has a hitting line that is 21% above average and solid fielding at both corner infield positions, which have helped him rank 28th in position-player WAR at FanGraphs.
Such a turnabout has occurred on the North Side, and it is indicative of the degree of change in MLB’s wild-card races and, consequently, in the participants’ trade deadline positions. The Cincinnati Reds (leaders of the NL Central) and San Francisco Giants (top NL wild card) are only six games ahead of the underperforming but still optimistic San Diego Padres. However, eight teams are jammed into that area, vying for four playoff positions in close quarters. All of them have either admitted to being buyers or are thought to be moving in that way.
This also illustrates how adaptable the Cubs’ situation is. As recently as this month, when the cavalry simply hadn’t shown up, analysts (pointing at self) had virtually written the Cubs off as contenders for the 2023 World Series. That was in spite of some obviously wise summer decisions, including signing shortstop Dansby Swanson to a long-term contract and giving Bellinger a one-year contract extension.
The rest of the situation in Chicago is at best unclear. Nico Hoerner, Ian Happ, and Seiya Suzuki are the leaders of the under-30 group ostensibly intended to lead the push with Swanson, but that trio hasn’t exactly struck — certainly not enough to instill confidence or the spark of enthusiasm visible in, say, Cincinnati.
As crucial components, other, more unexpected names have asserted claims. The 27-year-old pitcher Justin Steele possesses a perplexing fastball and a 14th-place ERA in baseball since the season began in 2022 (minimum 200 innings). Utility player Christopher Morel, 24, is in his second season and has hit 16 home runs in 62 games. Mike Tauchman, who was acquired on the cheap, has consistently reached base and last week became a temporary folk hero by robbing a home run to win a game.
How long-lasting is it? Steele is making a strong case, but the roster behind Swanson needs to improve significantly before the front office can make a final decision. It’s reasonable to question if Jed Hoyer, president of baseball operations, would have been better off, in the medium- to long-term, dangling two months of Bellinger to try and lure in a foundational young talent, even after a blistering, perspective-flipping run.
The Cubs’ top prospects, pitcher DJ Herz and shortstop Kevin Made, were sent back to Washington, but the decision to acquire rather than sell is a major one. Basically, there are two options. Giving up the chance to highlight the team’s average young movement and choosing to pay a price, however fair, in order to pursue results in 2023 are both choices. The Cubs have blown past any stop signs that might have been in the corners of their vision two years after a dramatic sell-off that destroyed the nucleus of the 2016 World Series team.
Of course, there is an element of hope in a team viewing the scoreboard from another city rather than the minor league box scores. And for the first time in a short while, it will be available at Wrigley Field for the remainder of this season. In a sport where 12 clubs make the playoffs, the Cubs entered Monday ranked precisely 12th in both team offensive performance (by wRC+) and team pitching production (by ERA). The “fringe contender” entry on Wikipedia ought ideally lead to the Baseball-Reference page for Chicago.
Even if these athletes don’t end up being priceless diamonds, perhaps this is the best approach to put them under pressure. Given that the Cubs’ first and third basemen rank 23rd in offensive production, perhaps Candelario will be an especially significant addition.
The Cubs can correctly note that teams in worse positions have recently advanced to the World Series (2019 Washington Nationals, 2022 Philadelphia Phillies), that they may be due for some cluster luck to tip a few additional wins their way, and that they have the best run differential in the NL Central by a significant margin.
And why not them? Well, coming up with a clever rejoinder is difficult.
The Cubs can assert that they are in it to win it in the crowded National League, where only the Atlanta Braves have actually distinguished themselves. If the past two weeks have shown anything, it’s that this squad might be deserving of the label in this wild-card chase.