Top of the Order: The Cubs Need a Spark

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Tuesday and Friday I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Things have taken a rough turn for the Chicago Cubs since the end of April. Over the weekend, they lost three of their four games against the Reds, lowering their record to 32-34 ahead of their upcoming a three-game set against the Rays in Tampa Bay.

The Cubs started strong, with a 17-9 record that ranked third in the National League, but their 17-0 loss to the Red Sox on April 27 kicked off a nightmarish 15-25 run. Since then, only the putrid White Sox have fewer wins than their crosstown rivals during that 40-game stretch. So what’s gone wrong? And what can the Cubs do to fix it? We’ll get to that second, more complicated question a bit later, but before we do, let’s answer that first one because it’s pretty simple. What’s gone wrong? Pretty much everything.

Since April 27, the Cubs rank 25th in the majors with an 87 wRC+, down from the sixth-ranked 112 wRC+ they posted across their first 26 games. Meanwhile, over their last 40 games, their pitching staff has a 4.14 ERA, which ranks 19th. Their bullpen has been especially bad, with a 4.90 ERA that is the fourth-worst mark in the majors during that span. Even fielding the ball has been a struggle; despite having reigning Gold Glovers Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner at the middle infield positions, Chicago has been among the seven worst defensive clubs in the majors, with -20 DRS and -10 OAA.

Jed Hoyer’s tenure as president of baseball operations has been defined by building depth and accruing volume rather than star power. Despite running one of the four franchises valued at $4 billion or more, Hoyer hasn’t signed a player to a contract larger than Swanson’s $177 million, and as things stand, he has not doled out a deal worth $30 million for a single season. (If Cody Bellinger opts out after the season, the Cubs will pay him a total of $30 million, but that technically wouldn’t be $30 million for one year; rather, Bellinger would earn $25 million in 2024, with a $5 million buyout allocated to 2025.)

Obviously, there aren’t any marquee free agents to sign right now, and it remains to be seen if the Cubs will be in the market for the best available players this coming offseason. (As of now, Juan Soto and Corbin Burnes look like the only two who’ll command average annual values of $30 million or more.) But letting perfect contract terms be the enemy of good teams has arguably been what’s prevented the Cubs from making the postseason in every non-COVID year since 2019. The team was at least loosely connected to Bryce Harper, Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Carlos Correa in their free agent years, all of whom besides Bogaerts would be the Cubs’ best player right now. Of course, there are more factors to signing a free agent besides offering the most money — Turner preferred being out east, for example — but the Cubs’ inability, or perhaps lack of desire, to even get close to finalizing deals with elite free agents may well be directly contributing to what has been a middling team for the past handful of seasons.

This is not to say that all the Cubs’ recent signings haven’t worked out. The Swanson deal looked great last year when he hit 22 home runs, posted a 104 wRC+, and was worth 4.4 WAR; we shouldn’t lose sight of that just because he’s struggled this year. Similarly, Chicago’s decision to sign Shota Imanaga was brilliant. Although he didn’t come to the U.S. with the same hype as Yamamoto, and therefore came cheaper, Imanaga has been arguably the best pitcher from last offseason’s free agent class.

But along with those two astute signings, there are plenty of others for “middle-class” free agents that haven’t worked out, among them are the deals for pitchers Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly, Michael Fulmer, Brad Boxberger, first baseman/DH Trey Mancini, and catcher Tucker Barnhart. Settling for these value deals for mid-tier players has led to Chicago’s middling performances. The Cubs can afford to spend more than they have under Hoyer, and part of the reason why they are floundering now is because they don’t have enough high-end talent to contend with the best teams. To get star-level players, you need to pay star-level prices. Maybe those prices are excessive and don’t make sense according to dollars-per-WAR calculations, but they’re often necessary to assemble a winning roster, especially for the clubs that have the financial flexibility overpay for players. As Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman once said, being rational doesn’t consummate many deals. That sentiment can also be applied to trades — the Cubs haven’t swung a significant one on the buying side since acquiring Jose Quintana during the 2017 season.

That hesitation to swing major trades has had a positive effect, though, in that it’s given the Cubs an incredibly deep farm system. In their piece on the Cubs’ top prospects, Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin described the organization’s minor league system as “one of the very best” in MLB, noting that the franchise has more top 100 prospects (9) than any other team.

But, having a great farm system doesn’t mean much if you’re not going to use your prospects either to beef up your big league club or trade them for impactful players on other teams.

The Cubs have already tried the former, to mixed results. Three of their nine top 100 prospects are already on the major league roster: first baseman Michael Busch, who has a solid 123 wRC+ at first base; Pete Crow-Armstrong, who has struggled at the plate (60 wRC+) but is already one of the league’s finest center fielders (4 OAA, 6 DRS); and Jordan Wicks, whose peripherals (4.01 xERA and 3.23 FIP) indicate that he’s been better than his 4.44 ERA in five starts and a relief appearance would suggest. The problem is that none of them, at least right now, are enough to help the Cubs break through.

So where do the Cubs go from here? Well, they probably can’t look within the organization to stop the bleeding. Outfielder Owen Caissie, their sixth-ranked prospect and no. 69 overall, is tearing it up in Triple-A right now (130 wRC+ in 238 plate appearances), but he’s the only one of their six top 100 prospects still in the minors who is close to being ready for the big leagues. Instead, the best way to fix things for this season would probably involve trading away at least one of their top four prospects: Crow-Armstrong, right-hander Cade Horton (currently out with a lat strain), infielder Matt Shaw, and outfielder Kevin Alcántara.

If the Cubs don’t think they can sign Soto or Burnes, trading for established stars is really their only path to acquiring a player who could drastically improve the floor and ceiling of a roster that’s more quantity than quality, with Bellinger, Christopher Morel, and Seiya Suzuki showing flashes of stardom but not on a consistent basis. The Cubs haven’t had consistent All-Star performers on offense since the days of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo; on the pitching side, they haven’t had a single ace-level starter since Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks in their peaks — though Imanaga certainly appears on his way. They haven’t had a closer last an entire season in the role since Wade Davis in 2017.

Ultimately, if the goal is to win — and with Craig Counsell at the helm for $8 million a year, it certainly ought to be — then acquiring a true anchor for the roster is paramount. But if the team appears too flawed for a single star player like Luis Robert Jr., or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to make a difference, then the best course of action might be to further augment the farm system by selling before this year’s trade deadline, even if they only trade rental relievers like Smyly and Héctor Neris. They could then finally make this coming offseason the one where they get aggressive rather than shrewd, going to the market instead of waiting for it to come to them. If they went all in and signed Soto, he’d be the best hitter they’ve had in decades. And despite some of the questions about the long-term viability of Pete Alonso, he’d certainly be the team’s biggest power threat since Sammy Sosa. With either or both of those stars on the roster, the Cubs would be able to let the top players in their farm system develop while contributing in supporting roles instead of having to fulfill their potential right away.

Whether it comes now, at the deadline, or in the offseason, the Cubs need to do something different. Going back to the well with good-not-great players is how you get good-not-great teams.

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1 month ago

Feels like they’re a Neal Huntington run team from the 2017ish era but with more money.