Here’s the big reason why the Chicago Cubs should not be maneuvering to trade away their two marketable assets prior to the deadline; There’s no upside to doing so.
The two assets obviously are starting pitcher Marcus Stroman and outfielder Cory Bellinger. Stroman has the right to opt out of his contract at season’s end, and will almost certainly do so. He’s among the league leaders in ERA. Bellinger signed a one-year contract prior to this season. He’s batting above .300 with power.
Either would be coveted by a contender. But the Cubs’ only concern ought to be whether the gain in trading either or both of them would outweigh the loss in doing so.
The loss can be measured in the team’s chances of qualifying for postseason play. Their victory over Boston Saturday leaves Chicago at 43-48 and seven games behind the division leader with 73 games remaining.
Baseball-Reference gives the North Sidersa one-in-three chance of reaching postseason play, presumably by closing that seven-game gap in the Central, where no team stands out.
So the down side of dealing away your two stars is obvious: it blows up your chances of making that late-season run. What’s the upside for the Chicago Cubs?
The upside is that the return on Bellinger and/or Stroman would hopefully include prospects with at least the potential for a Major League future.
But there are significant mitigations to that upside that also need to be factored in.
The first of those mitigations is the free agency that looms for both players at season’s end. Any team acquiring them must look on them as two-month rentals. That fact alone drives down their trade value. It raises the serious question of what level of prospect they might bring.
That brings up the second mitigation. Unlike in 2021, when team president Jed Hoyer unloaded Anthony Rizzo, Craig Kimbrel, Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson and Javier Baez, the 2022 Cubs are not in need of a major rebuild.
Even if they do not re-sign Stroman and/or Bellinger this winter, the Cubs will enter 2024 as division contenders. Granted, they’re in a weak division, but their returning core — Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner, Ian Happ, Justin Steele, Christopher Morel, Seiya Suzuki — provides a nucleus that can be built around.
This is a team that does not need to restock its farm system; this is a team that needs to find potentially productive pieces for next spring. It is unlikely that either Stroman or Bellinger would bring players of that quick turnaround quality in return.
For proof of how hazardous it is to trade talent for prospects, one need only look back at the returns gained by that flurry of July 2021 deals.
As a group, Rizzo, Baez, Pederson, Kimbrel and Bryant have not gone on to glory in their post-Cubs careers. In the equivalent of two full seasons, they have accumulated a collective 13.3 WAR, working out to 1.33 WAR per player season. They haven’t been much better than subsistence level.
But that’s not Chicago’s concern; Chicago’s concern is what those five players brought back. Two seasons removed from the deed, the accomplishments of the eight players who were returned to Chicago in those trades is reason enough to question the upside of a deadline-driven shakeup.
Only three of the eight — Nick Madrigal, Codi Heuer and Caleb Kilian — have seen any major league time at all. None have become more than bit players. Their collective WAR measures +1.2, or about +0.2 per player season. In other words, it’s barely negligible.
One of the other five is no longer in professional baseball. Of the four prospects still in the Cubs system, two have not advanced above High-A, and a third got to Triple-A before regressing this year all the way back to Rookie League.
That means the entire potential upside of that 2021 trade deadline splurge can be reduced to one name. Center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong, who came from the Mets for Baez and Trevor Williams, is at Double-A West Tennessee, and is ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the Cubs’ system.
It’s not out of the question that Crow-Armstrong is Bellinger’s 2024 replacement.
But that’s it. That’s the entire upside of the 2021 trade splurge; a center field prospect who might make it in 2024. That and whatever value you think Nick Madrigal has.
Unless there’s reason to believe that Stroman and Bellinger could bring more this year than Bryant, Rizzo and Baez did in 2021, there’s no upside to moving them. The Chicago Cubs are a team on the ascendency, not the decline, and there’s little prospect of landing 2024 usable talent in return.
In short, even if the odds of this Chicago team actually qualifying for postseason play are only one-in-three, the Cubs are better off playing out those long odds than folding by cutting ties with Bellinger and Stroman for prospects.