A couple weeks ago, the Cubs had positioned themselves as likely buyers during trade season. As recently as June 24, Chicago was tied with the Brewers atop the NL Central, nine games over .500. The past two weeks have been an unmitigated disaster for the North Siders, though.
Between June 25 and July 7, the Cubs lost eleven consecutive games. They snapped that streak with a win over the Phillies last night, but Chicago enters tonight’s matchup against Philadelphia with an uninspiring 43-44 record. The Brewers, meanwhile, have rattled off a 10-3 stretch over that time, opening up an 8.5 game lead on Chicago within a 14-day span. (The 45-41 Reds have also since passed the Cubs to jump into second place in the division). Chicago isn’t a whole lot closer in the Wild Card race, trailing the Padres by seven games (with Cincinnati and the Nationals also above them in the standings).
An eleven game losing streak can certainly tank a team’s season, and it seems it might’ve in the Cubs’ case. On June 24, FanGraphs gave Chicago a 35.7% chance of making the playoffs; entering play today, their odds were down to 6.4%.
With a playoff berth all of a sudden seeming highly unlikely, the calculus for the Cubs front office changes considerably, a fact that president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer acknowledged this evening. Speaking with reporters (including Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune and Gordon Wittenmyer of NBC Sports Chicago), Hoyer sounded far more willing to move players off the big league roster than he’d been a couple weeks ago.
“Eleven days ago, we were certainly fully on the buying side … and obviously (teams) are now calling to see which players are available,” Hoyer said. “So it’s a very different scenario than we’d expected. Life comes at you fast.” Asked whether the front office is willing to make players available, Hoyer noted their responsibility to consider anything “that can help build the next great Cubs team,” citing their aforementioned dwindling playoff odds.
The implications for the Cubs are obvious. Three of their highest-profile players — Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo — are all slated to hit free agency at the end of the season. If the team isn’t contending in 2021, it stands to reason any or all of them could find themselves on the move over the next few weeks.
Certainly, there’d be plenty of interest in every member of that group. Bryant has bounced back from a disappointing 2020 to hit a very strong .269/.349/.498 with sixteen home runs over 324 plate appearances this year. He’s making far more consistent hard contact and barreling balls up at a rate he hasn’t since his MVP peak. Bryant’s production has tailed off after he got out to a scorching start to the year, but his combination of excellent season-long numbers and overall track record would make him perhaps the top player on the trade market were the Cubs to make him available.
Rizzo’s .250/.343/.439 line is down rather significantly from his best seasons. It’s still above-average offensive production, though, and he continues to offer a rare combination of bat-to-ball skills and hard contact (to say nothing of quality defensive marks at first base). Báez has struck out at an alarming 36.6% clip this year en route to a .234 batting average and a .282 on-base percentage. But he’s also popped 21 home runs and slugged .496, and he’s a comfortably above-average defender and baserunner.
Between their career accolades, key roles on the 2016 World Series team, and impending free agencies, that trio figures to draw the most fanfare in advance of the July 30 trade deadline. They’re far from the only players on whose availability other teams might inquire, though. Zach Davies, Joc Pederson and Jake Marisnick are useful players set to reach free agency this winter. (Marisnick has a mutual option for 2022, but mutual options are rarely exercised by both parties).
Willson Contreras, controllable via arbitration through 2022, is one of the game’s best catchers and was the subject of trade discussion last offseason. Closer Craig Kimbrel is having an incredible bounceback campaign, pitching to a 0.57 ERA with a 46.2% strikeout rate and 8.5% walk percentage after struggling mightily between 2019-20. Kimbrel’s $16MM salary for 2021 now looks more than reasonable, as does the matching option on his contract for 2022.
Certainly, it’d be a surprise to see all of those players change teams in the next few weeks. Hoyer pushed back against the idea the Cubs were planning to kick off any sort of full-on rebuild, even as he acknowledged that the 2022 roster will look different from the current iteration. He also noted there’s still some possibility — slim as it now seems — the team plays its way back into contention over the coming weeks.
The Cubs have eighteen more games before the deadline. After facing the Phils tonight, their slate through July 29 consists of seven games against the Cardinals, six against the lowly Diamondbacks, and four against the Reds, one of the teams they’ll need to leapfrog for a postseason spot.
Winning thirteen or fourteen of those contests might get the Cubs sufficiently close to the postseason picture that the front office decides not to orchestrate a sell-off. The core of the current club has been pivotal to arguably the franchise’s most successful five-year run in over a century. It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hoyer and his front office give the group as long a leash as possible this summer to try to play their way back into the mix.
Nevertheless, the most likely scenario is that the club’s dreadful past two weeks dug them a hole too deep to come back from. That’s an inescapable reality Hoyer acknowledged this afternoon, one that may result in a few of the franchise’s most important players of recent memory donning new uniforms in a few weeks’ time.