Column: Cody Bellinger increases his trade value as the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals appear ready for clearance deals

22 July 2023

When the 2023 schedule came out last August it looked as if this late-July weekend would be an enticing one at Wrigley Field.

The defending National League Central champion St. Louis Cardinals would invade Wrigley for a four-game series against the Chicago Cubs, whose “intelligent spending” plan was supposed to turn them into contenders.

As it turned out, the Cardinals have endured a miserable season, spending 80 days in last place, while the Cubs have been below .500 since May 13 and began Friday 8 1/2 games behind the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers.

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak recently said a sell-off of short-term assets was likely, given their place in the standings. Cubs President Jed Hoyer has remained coy about his intentions at the Aug. 1 trade deadline, though all indications point to a mini sell-off without a post-All-Star break tear.

But time is running out, and even after Friday’s 4-3 win over the Cardinals, the Cubs inched closer to officially becoming sellers.

That means Cody Bellinger, who homered and had three hits Friday, could be a goner in the next 10 days, a possibility he acknowledged afterward.

“Just understanding the reality of the game,” he said. “With that being said, a lot of it is out of my control — if I go, where I go, whatever happens.”

The Cubs evened the series at a game apiece before a crowd of 38,819, as Justin Steele pitched into the seventh inning to notch his 10th win and Miles Mastrobuoni hit his first career home run. Adbert Alzolay collected his eighth save after second baseman Christopher Morel let a ball go right through him with two outs to give the Cardinals life.

As tradition dictates, any potential trade chip maintains they’re unaffected by the trade rumors, even as their names appear in headlines with destinations such as New York, Los Angeles and Houston attached.

Bellinger said he’s “in the loop” with the front office on what could happen but declined to say what he was told.

“There has been open communication,” he said. “I’ve never been in this situation before, so I don’t know what to say or not to say, so I’m just going to say I’m going to focus on the game.”

Bellinger then laughed at his own cliche. Focusing on the game when your future might lie elsewhere is tricky, and he and starter Marcus Stroman are two of the biggest names on the market.

“They just have a way to know how to do it,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “They’ve done it their entire lives. Everybody handles distractions a little bit differently. Not everybody is able to cope with that, but those two guys in particular, I know they’re very strong mentally.”

Bellinger’s stock has soared in the last month, while Stroman’s has dropped a bit.

Stroman announced June 10 in San Francisco that Cubs management had not engaged in extension talks, casually feeding into the rumor mill that grows daily as the deadline approaches. He has gone 1-3 with a 6.46 ERA over his last five starts, averaging fewer than five innings per outing. It’s an inopportune time to struggle, and as a two-month rental, Stroman’s value already was somewhat limited.

Bellinger, on the other hand, is hitting .381 with six home runs and 17 RBIs since returning from the injured list June 15. Like Stroman he’d also be a short-term rental for any club interested in acquiring him. But a rare left-handed bat with power and playoff experience, and being an everyday player, he should command more in return than a starter who’d be available for perhaps 10-11 regular-season starts, plus potentially the postseason.

Steele called Bellinger “must-watch television” for fans.

“Everybody, when he comes up to bat, really is watching TV,” Steele said.

The Cubs co-own a TV network, which seemingly could use a “must-watch” player to showcase over the coming years. Bellinger, an MVP four years ago, has turned his career around in Chicago after being non-tendered by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Cubs fans have showered him with affection.

“Love it here,” Bellinger said. “It’s a great place. This is all the hard work paying off. Just have to keep on rolling.”

Whether that’s in Chicago or elsewhere remains to be seen. But no matter what happens at the deadline, Ross said he’ll manage the same way as the first four months of the season.

“Whether we’re 20 games out and have already passed the trade deadline and traded everybody, like in some of my early years, or last year, you’re trying to win the baseball game,” he said. “We want to win them all. So I feel like I’m the same dude because I’m unaffected by the trade deadline. I’m affected by the losses.”

But the trading of key players obviously would affect him. The Cubs probably would get prospects in return and have different goals over the final two months.

“We won a lot of games last year in the second half with a new team,” Ross said, referring to their 39-31 record after the All-Star break.

True, but many of those players were getting a look since the season was over. Several are no longer on the team.

Ross acknowledged the Cubs played better in the second half last year with an easier schedule and improved pitching.

“We’ve got another easy schedule in the second half,” he said. “In theory. You can win or lose any game to any team. But you try to go out and win as often as you can and (Hoyer has) to make decisions based on the long-term plan for this organization to try to win championships.”

Ross said the goal was “not to get to .500” but to win the World Series.

“I want to create history and do special things,” he said.

Keeping Bellinger around on a multiyear extension would make that goal easier to accomplish.

But it’s all in Hoyer’s hands now.


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