CHICAGO — Cubs team president Jed Hoyer tries to stay dispassionate. He, like many of the new-age, front-office types, won’t act rashly and refuses to judge his team on a day-to-day basis. That’s the right way to attack things during a long baseball season. But there were times over the last few weeks when it sounded like he was riding the same roller coaster fans tend to.
It may seem obvious now. Especially after Tuesday’s 20-9 win over the Cincinnati Reds got them back to a game over .500 and just four games out of first place. But it wasn’t long ago that the direction the Cubs would go this deadline wasn’t so clear.
“There was a period where it looked like we were gonna be sellers,” Hoyer said. “I think back to when we were seven under and playing the Nationals down 3-0. It looked like we were going to drop to eight under. We ended up scoring 17 that night and then sort of didn’t look back for a while. That was not very long ago. At that point, it did look like things were going in (a selling) direction.”
That game Hoyer referenced was the start of the 11-3 run the Cubs are currently on. It was last week that things started to crystalize for Hoyer and his front office. The comeback against the Chicago White Sox where they fell behind 7-2 and immediately stormed back to take the lead the next half inning and won 10-7 started to push them into buy mode.
But they saw a White Sox team that was in disarray and not putting up much of a fight. They viewed the St. Louis Cardinals as a team that may have been struggling as far as wins go, but would give them a real test. The weekend prior to the Sox series, there were moments while taking three of four from St. Louis at Wrigley that helped them inch closer to buying. There was the 4-3 win that went their way due to a very questionable zone being called by the home-plate umpire right before Alec Burleson grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded. The next game was a tight back-and-forth affair where the Cubs erased multiple deficits, eventually coming out on top once again.
A weekend in St. Louis was looked at as a real measuring stick. After an easy win Thursday night against the Cardinals, the Cubs seemed to seal their fate last Friday. In what will be a highlight that lives on for years to come for Cubs fans, the north siders took a 3-2 nail-biter that ended with Mike Tauchman reaching over the fence to steal a would-be game-winning homer from Burleson.
HOLY COW!! MIKE TAUCHMAN!
CUBS WIN! pic.twitter.com/K7nFdwZ8im
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) July 29, 2023
“That was sort of like, OK, this is a lot of fun,” Hoyer said. “These guys are celebrating like it’s a playoff game and just doing so many great things together as a group. It sort of felt like when we won six in a row against the Cardinals in that stretch, that was probably the turning point. You realize this group believes in each other and it’s definitely the right thing to do to keep them together and let them play the last two months. In a lot of ways they made it really easy.”
Hoyer had to toe a delicate line for weeks. He had to keep other teams engaged while discussing the possibility of selling while also monitoring an extremely limited seller’s market. At a certain point, other buyers understood they were wasting their time trying to pry away the likes of Cody Bellinger and Marcus Stroman.
“It was interesting,” Hoyer said. “We talk about when the decision was made, more and more as we got deep into last week other teams were calling, they’re like, ‘You’re not selling.’ People stopped taking us seriously as a seller, like, ‘Come on, you guys are good, you guys are going to buy.’ But you have to have those conversations, you have to lay the groundwork for everything. You can’t jump in cold and have those talks. We were on both sides going back several weeks.”
Hoyer called their big-splash addition, Jeimer Candelario, the team’s “priority” at the deadline. A switch-hitter who entered Tuesday’s game with a 134 wRC+ against righties and can play both corner infield positions and DH is a huge need for this team. The Cubs have been doing better against right-handed pitchers, but it’s still an area they felt they needed to upgrade. At an 86 wRC+, their first-base production has been among the worst in baseball. Third base (90) is slowly climbing with Nick Madrigal looking better and DH (107) has become a strength as Christopher Morel continues to grow at the plate.
Seiya Suzuki’s off day on Tuesday shouldn’t be read as anything more than a day to clear his mind as he searches for his rhythm at the plate. He remains the team’s everyday right fielder. With a lefty on the mound, manager David Ross will occasionally squeeze Patrick Wisdom in at first and he’ll continue to get Tauchman in the lineup regularly against righties. It shouldn’t be too hard. Madrigal will need time off to make sure he stays healthy and Candelario gives them another strong defensive option at third.
One expected area of improvement that wasn’t clearly addressed was the bullpen. Righty Jose Cuas, acquired from the Kansas City Royals, could be activated as soon as Wednesday, but a final decision still hasn’t been made on that. The Cubs believe he can be valuable and other organizations see untapped potential, but it’s still not an obvious upgrade. Not adding a left-handed reliever to pair with Mark Leiter Jr. — a right-hander who has dominated lefties for much of his career — came as a surprise. But the reality was there just weren’t enough options out there for buyers.
“Candidly, it was such a seller’s market,” Hoyer said. “There was not a ton of talent this year on the market when we looked at it overall. I think all the teams kind of felt that way. We talked to different executives. It was not a really robust market in a lot of ways.
“We tried pretty hard. We were definitely in on a lot of different guys.”
One aspect that hurt the Cubs was that three of the sellers were particularly tough for them to try and deal with. The White Sox were going to charge extra to help their crosstown rivals improve in a season where the south siders have failed to come close to meeting their own expectations. Neither the Cardinals nor the Pittsburgh Pirates were eager to deal with their division rivals. In an already limited market, the Cubs’ options had dwindled even further.
“I’ll give the scouts and the player development guys a lot of credit,” Hoyer said. “I do think we’ve worked amazingly hard the last few years to build up our farm system. To be able to give up talented guys but also be able to protect our top 10, 15 group was incredibly important for us.”
Lefty pitcher DJ Herz and shortstop Kevin Made were the prospects moved for Candelario and both are talented players. In recent years, they would have been easy top-10 prospects in a weak Cubs system. But now the argument could be made that neither is among the best at their position in the Cubs farm. That’s less a knock on the players and more a compliment to how much the talent has grown in the Cubs system.
In general, it was a difficult market for those looking to buy. Many teams that were expected to add bigger pieces came away with less, sometimes nothing at all. While Hoyer didn’t fill every hole, he clearly upgraded his roster and came away with arguably the best MLB bat moved at the deadline. Not only was this a bad market to try and add, but the Cubs clearly didn’t see this as a time to start overpaying for two months of a player.
It’s important to note that while the front office believes this team can make a run to October, this isn’t the moment when they’re going to drain their farm system in order to add rental players. Hoyer pointed out that the type of controllable pitcher or position player they would do that for wasn’t really available at this deadline. But those types of moves aren’t far off. As this team continues to show progress, it only incentivizes Hoyer and his front office to be aggressive this winter when more options will open up. And if it goes as planned, all the more reason to expect big action next summer as well.
Ultimately, while Candelario is the big addition for this summer, inaction — meaning not selling — was part of the equation as well. Hoyer repeatedly talked about how their recent winning ways meant they would “keep the group together” and see what kind of run they could make over the next two months. There are fans who likely wanted more and it may sound like twisted logic to some, but the front office sees not moving Bellinger and Stroman as part of their “buying” at the deadline.
By believing in what this team can be and giving them a little added firepower, the front office has finally given Cubs fans an August and September where they can care again. Instead of jockeying for draft position and wondering how the team can possibly compete a year from now, there will be scoreboard-watching and constant attention paid to the standings.
“It’s where you want to be,” Hoyer said. “I think when we talked in spring training, the (question) was, ‘Can this group be competitive?’ And they’re competitive, for sure. We’re a really good team.
“This team has a chance to come together and really win. Sitting here after selling is never the goal. Certainly as we sat here several weeks ago, we thought that was the path we were going to take. But it’s a much better feeling to be sitting here now having added and having been able to show the belief we have in this group.”
(Top photo of Ian Happ, Cody Bellinger and Dansby Swanson: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)