Just over a month ago, it appeared as if the tide was finally turning on the North Side.
After a collapse in 2021 before the trade deadline led to a fire sale that saw the Cubs’ front office trade away the majority of the team’s World Series-winning core from five years prior, a new era appeared to be on the horizon.
This new era was appearing to finally take fruition in April. The Cubs’ offseason acquisitions of Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger had revitalized the offense, and by inking Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ to three-year contract extensions, Jed Hoyer and company appeared to be communicating that this was a core the Cubs could build around.
Just over a month later, Cubs fans are once again left in doubt over what the team’s future holds.
After concluding play on May 1 with a 15-13 record spearheaded by All-Star level play from the Cubs’ most important contributors, the team has taken a nosedive, winning only a third of their games since.
While bullpen weaknesses that appeared in flashes in April can certainly be blamed for the Cubs’ struggles in one-run games, where they hold a dismal 5-11 record, it has been the significant drop in offensive production that has hampered the team’s chances to win the most.
The bats went cold this week in what was a necessary series for the Cubs to make up ground in, being outscored 16-7 in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels after holding a lead in all three games.
Despite having a run differential of just minus-8 runs, the Cubs find themselves 10 games below .500 and 7.5 games out of first place in a division where a 34-29 record is good for the lead.
In a season of crushing close losses, strong performances from stars and an urgency to take the next step towards competing for the playoff spot, the Cubs have faltered quickly and now are almost certain to sell assets at the trade deadline once again.
Cody Bellinger, who while still injured, appeared to have revitalized his career in the 37 games he’s played this season, and will likely be a popular trade target if he returns healthy before the deadline.
Perhaps the toughest potential trade from an emotional standpoint, Kyle Hendricks could pitch himself onto the trade market radar with a few more successful starts, as the lone remaining member of the 2016 Cubs is in the final year of a four-year deal, with a vesting option for 2024.
Selling at the trade deadline does not signify the Cubs heading back to square one, as multi-year deals with Happ, Hoerner and Seiya Suzuki alongside a seven-year commitment to Dansby Swanson show the team will maintain sizable stake in players currently on the roster to compete.
Pete Crow-Armstrong, acquired in the 2021 trade that sent Javier Baez to the New York Mets, has also emerged as one of the game’s top outfield prospects while the team’s second-ranked prospect, right-hander Cade Horton, was recently promoted to High-A South Bend.
Yet in trading Bellinger and possibly Stroman, the Cubs would be wagering proven big-league performers for a haul of prospects to add to a farm system that is promising at best and highly questionable at worst.
Brennen Davis, ranked as the organization’s second-best prospect just last year, has hit below .200 at AAA Iowa with a ghastly .615 OPS across 45 games.
While still the third-best prospect in the organization, Kevin Alcántara has shown mixed results at South Bend this year, totaling 15 extra-base hits and 11 stolen bases while struggling to a .289 OBP.
Although the Cubs have considerable talent in their farm system, it is not at the levels seen last decade when the team was preparing to graduate several prospects that went on to form the majority of a championship-winning core.
With a playoff-experienced ace voicing desire to remain with the team long-term, even in the event of the Cubs selling off assets, pursuing an extension with Marcus Stroman potentially offers the team more long-term benefit than trading him for prospects at the deadline.
As experienced top-of-the-rotation strength is routinely among the hardest to draft and among the highest in-demand during free agency, maintaining Stroman gives the Cubs both security at the top of the rotation for the foreseeable future and maintains the team as a free agent destination with tools to compete.
Jed Hoyer, Carter Hawkins and company will have difficult decisions to make on the long-term future of the franchise, just over a month after locking up two core pieces for multiple years.
In a season and future of uncertainty, hanging on to the most tantalizing trade chip while selling off other contributors could leave the Cubs in a favorable position to compete next year.
The Cubs kick off a three-game set against the Giants in San Francisco tonight at 9:15 p.m. local time.