It’s been less than a decade, but it can be easy to forget: 2016 was our year. Atop the baseball world heading into the trade deadline, the Cubs bought, and they bought big: they acquired one Aroldis Chapman at the peak of his closing powers, trading away top prospect Gleyber Torres and former first-round pick Billy McKinney (and Adam Warren and Rashad Crawford) for the final piece in their pursuit of that elusive World Series title.
The 2023 Cubs, fresh off two consecutive deadline fire sales that saw practically every fan-favorite and remaining member of that World Series winning core shipped off for prospects, are not in the same position to buy so prodigiously. In fact, most pundits across the league expect them to sell, as they are armed with two of the best trade chips on the market in Marcus Stroman and Cody Bellinger.
But, here on July 28th, finally back to .500 and 5.5 games back in the division (and just 4.0 games back in the Wild Card), the Cubs are at an impasse. Year three of this “Not a Rebuild” has yielded mixed (at best) results, as most of the top prospects in the organization still have MLB ETAs years into the future. It may be prudent to sell one more time this year, hoping to boost the stock of the farm system one more tier before truly committing to opening the window of contention in the offseason. At the very least, that path appears far more appealing than merely standing pat at the deadline and hoping for the best.
Here’s the thing though: baseball, like all sports, is entertainment. We, as fans, desire to be entertained. Guys become folk heroes in the midst of the games that matter. Kyle Schwarber didn’t become a Chicago legend because he was the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft; he became a hero for hitting bombs into the Allegheny River against Gerrit Cole in a do-or-die scenario. Ben Zobrist will go down in the mythos of the Windy City because he won the greatest World Series MVP of all time, not because he facilitated the Starlin Castro trade that would eventually bring Chapman to the Cubs.
It’s true that there are fun stories that develop even in lost years. Frank Schwindel became the people’s champion in 2021 following that fire sale, and Hayden Wesneski dominated after being acquired for fan-favorite Scott Effross in 2022. Prospects get some extra love as everyone looks toward the future, like “Mash” Mervis last year or Brailyn Marquez during the final years of the last core’s collapse. And even though these storylines are fun, they pale in comparison to the legacy-defining moments that defined this franchise’s recent past.
It’s important to note that no one is advocating for an all-out assault on the buying side of the market this year (or at least, they shouldn’t be). The Cubs aren’t getting Shohei Ohtani or Justin Verlander, even if both of those guys were plainly available. But maybe a reunion with former top prospect Jeimer Candelario to help fix what ails the Cubs at third base, or a buy-low attempt on C.J. Cron to fill the black hole that is Chicago Cubs first basemen in the year 2023, could help the Cubs make a valiant push back towards the playoffs. If nothing else, it would help signal that this “retooling” (HEAVY emphasis on the air quotes there) is coming to an end, and the Chicago Cubs are ready to genuinely compete again for something besides a top 10 pick in next year’s draft.
To put it plainly, these 2023 Cubs aren’t going to win the World Series. It’s more likely than not they miss the playoffs. But maybe, with a few small additions to fortify this roster, they can back their way into the Wild Card Round. Hell, with Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman leading the way, maybe they can luck their way into a Postseason series win. Failing that though, it would just be nice to see the Cubs playing meaningful baseball again into September.
On the brink of failure lies the precipice of success.
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