Column: Two years after the great sell-off, are the Chicago Cubs in a better position?

19 July 2023

The narrative that the Chicago Cubs are facing an Aug. 1 deadline to decide on their future has been bandied about recently, and it makes sense considering two of their biggest stars can leave as free agents at the end of the season.

But Cubs management really made the biggest decision on its path forward two years ago when president Jed Hoyer executed the Great Summer Sell-Off of 2021, starting with the Anthony Rizzo trade to the New York Yankees on July 29.

Whether you agreed with his moves or not, there was no denying Hoyer changed the direction of the franchise in one 48-hour stretch by dealing several stars for prospects, putting the 2016 championship in the rearview mirror and pointing to the “next great Cubs team” on the horizon.

But two years later, the question must be asked:

Are the Cubs any closer to being that “great” team? If not, how long must Cubs fans wait before they see signs of improvement?

The organization may be better off than in ’21, and some of the prospects they got in the sell-off, like Pete Crow-Armstrong and Kevin Alcántara, could turn into stars in the future.

Hoyer can also sleep well knowing that none of the Big Three stars he traded — Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez — have come back to haunt him. Injuries have curtailed Bryant’s career in Colorado, Baez’s .321 slugging percentage in Detroit is fourth-worst among qualified hitters, and Rizzo ranks 105th this season with a 1.0 WAR. None has enjoyed the kind of success they had in Chicago, even as Bryant and Báez got paid well in free agency, and Rizzo ended up in a preferable spot in the Bronx.

But now Hoyer faces the same dilemma: whether to deal stars Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger from a team that is only marginally better than the ’21 Cubs were at the trade deadline. They were 11 1/2 games out of first place when Hoyer started the sell-off by trading Rizzo, and 8 1/2 games back entering Tuesday’s game against the Washington Nationals.

Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ, two players from the ’21 Cubs who Hoyer made a financial commitment to, both have struggled in what’s considered by most a do-or-die July for the team.

Hoerner was hitting .140 with a .403 OPS in July on Tuesday, while Happ had a .138 average and a .495 OPS since June 25, the day after he hit two home runs against the St. Louis Cardinals in the opener of the London Series.

Manager David Ross inserted Hoerner back in the leadoff spot Tuesday and put Happ in his familiar No. 3 hole. Hoerner had three hits and two RBI as the Cubs won the second game of the series with the Nationals 17-3, while Happ added a pair of hits and an RBI.

Ross was adamant before the game that both deserved to hit their way out of a slump at the top of the lineup.

“You want to feel confidence from your manager,” Ross said. “There are going to be (down) stretches. I was looking today, and Nico and Happ were probably 30-40 points under their normal OPS. But it could be two weeks and they are right where they normally were last year.

“It’s easy from the outside to look at what guys are struggling with at certain moments, whether it’s 10 days to two weeks. But a season is a full season for a reason. You’re going to have good months, bad months … Riding through that, and showing confidence in the process of what guys are working on, talking through those things. They’re not going to figure it out sitting on the bench. In reality right now, if I could give Nico a day, I would. I can’t. Dansby Swanson is not in there.”

That suggests Ross doesn’t trust Christopher Morel at short, even for a day. And it also indicates the Cubs don’t have the kind of roster depth that separates good teams from mediocre ones. Morel was a late scratch at second base Tuesday with neck tightness, forcing Ross to insert reserve infielder Miles Mastrobuoni (.155, 1 RBI).

Cubs players keep insisting this is a good team, which is expected. But we’ve seen many examples of bad teams with a roster full of talented players, including one on the South Side. Until the Cubs get over .500, no one should be claiming they’re good.

Cubs fans have been relatively patient through the semi-rebuild, trusting Hoyer’s improvement of the farm system will ultimately pay off. Hoyer doesn’t get the same kind of scorched earth treatment Sox fans reserve for general manager Rick Hahn, but he’s only in his third year as the big cheese after nine years as Theo Epstein’s wingman. Give them time.

One thing we do know about Cubs fans is they like watching stars, and if Stroman and Bellinger are dealt by Aug. 1, there won’t be many reasons left to watch this team play out the string the final two months. Marquee Sports Network might have to go “full-metal Sut” down the stretch, bringing analyst Rick Sutcliffe in studio more often to assure Cubs fans Ross and his staff are doing the best they can.

Maybe some of the players they get in return for Stroman and Bellinger will be part of that “next great Cubs team.”

Or perhaps when the trade deadline approaches one year from now in 2024, the Cubs will be in the same position, no closer to the promised land than they were at this point in ’21.

It really could go either way.


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