Will the Cubs Be in the Mix to Buy at the Trade Deadline?

The Chicago Cubs have continued to slide in the National League standings. How will this affect their approach to the July 30 trade deadline?

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 19: Cody Bellinger #24 of the Chicago Cubs watches the flight of a home run in a game against the Kansas City Royals at Wrigley Field on August 19, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Matt Dirksen/Getty Images)

The Chicago Cubs set themselves up for success in 2024 for what was supposed to be a wide open National League Central Division with a busy offseason. They were able to retain outfielder Cody Bellinger, sign promising Japanese left-handed starter Shota Imanaga, and also trade for a much-needed corner infield bat for the future in Michael Busch.

And things were going well early on this season for Cubs as they were in a neck and neck race with the Milwaukee Brewers on May 12, sitting just a half game back of them.

Then it all seemed to come unraveled in Chicago.

It’s now June 24, and the Cubs not only sit 8.0 games behind the Brewers, only a half game up on the last place Cincinnati Reds in the Central.

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While winning the division may be a far-fetched dream for the Cubs at this point, an NL Wild Card position is still a viable possibility. Despite their 37-41 record the Cubs still sit just two games outside of the third wild card spot.

In fact only two teams sit more than three games outside of an NL Wild Card position, the Colorado Rockies and the Miami Marlins.

So could the Cubs still be a candidate to buy at the July 30 trade deadline?

All stats and standings are from prior to games on June 24.

It’s Been a Tale of Two Offenses for the Cubs in 2024

The Cubs fall off in mid-May stems from issues with their offense, as they’ve seen notable drops across numerous major statistical categories since they were within 0.5 games of top spot in the Central.

The Cubs are not a strong team when it comes to hitting for average in 2024, which is in large part due to the fact that they’ve consistently started players like Christopher Morel and Dansby Swanson on a nightly basis this season who’ve hit just .203 and .214, respectively.

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But according to FanGraphs, since May 12 the Cubs have fallen from 18th in the major leagues to 25th in team average, seeing a nine point drop from .238 to .229.

Where Chicago thrived early in 2024 was their ability to get on base and hit for power.

From Opening Day to May 12, the Cubs ranked eighth in MLB in team OBP at .322 and 12th in team SLG at .393. But since then they’ve fallen to 14th in OBP at .310 and 24th in SLG at .370.

This has obviously lead to a plummet in OPS as they’ve fallen from 11th in the league down to 19th in that same time span. And what might sum up the Cubs offensive inadequacies in recent weeks is the stat in which they’ve seen their most dramatic drop in team rankings, wRC+.

The Cubs have fallen 11 places in league rankings in team wRC+ since May 12, when they were ranked as top 10 team in the majors posting the 10th best total at 105.

Now on June 24, the Cubs sit 19th in wRC+, below the league average mark of 100, as they have posted just a 95.

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AVGOBPSLGOPSwRC+
Up to May 12.238.322.393.715105
After May 12.229.310.370.68095
Cubs Offensive Statistics Before May 12 vs After May 12

The Cubs’ Stars Haven’t Looked Like Stars at the Plate in 2024

In the past three offseasons the Cubs have invested in higher quality bats. Outfielder Seiya Suzuki was brought in ahead of the 2022 season, Swanson was signed for 2023 and Bellinger was re-signed ahead of this season. Outfielder Ian Happ began his three-year, $61 million extension this season, and has seen a decline in production this season.

Each of these players have fallen short of their 2023 form in 2024, and seen declines in numerous areas across the board.

AVGOBPSLGK%BB%wRC+
Cody Bellinger 2023.307.356.52515.6%7.2%134
Cody Bellinger 2024.270.331.43716.2%7.9%115
Cody Bellinger 2023 vs. 2024
AVGOBPSLGK%BB%wRC+
Dansby Swanson 2023.244.328.41624.1%10.3%104
Dansby Swanson 2024.214.286.36826.3%8.5%86
Dansby Swanson 2023 vs. 2024
AVGOBPSLGK%BB%wRC+
Seiya Suzuki 2023.285.357.48522.3%10.1%126
Seiya Suzuki 2024.264.338.44326.8%8.3%122
Seiya Suzuki 2023 vs. 2024
AVGOBPSLGK%BB%wRC+
Ian Happ 2023.248.360.43122.1%14.3%118
Ian Happ 2024.232.336.40527.9%12.3%113
Ian Happ 2023 vs. 2024

It’s hard for role players, like Morel, to really provide more of a spark when the big name, big money producers simply aren’t providing the production to compliment them.

Starting Pitching Has Also Taken a Hit

The Cubs were carried by top notch pitching performances early on this season, spearheaded by the likes of Imanaga showcasing Cy Young style performances.

And while their staff still ranks in the top half of the league when it comes to major team statistics, just like their offense, they have seen a drop in form since they were within reach of first-place in the NL Central on May 12.

As a starting rotation they are surrendering hits at a higher rate during this time, as they had a .228 average against up until May 12, which has since risen to .242.

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They have also seen an uptick in both ERA and WHIP during this time, rising from 3.22 and 1.17 to 3.63 and 1.23, respectively.

Their rotation has been exceptional this year with their four major arms, Imanaga, Justin Steele, Javier Assad and Jameson Taillon also posting sub-3.20 ERAs so far in 2024.

But since May 12, each of these starters, except for Steele, have posted higher ERAs than what they’ve accumulated this year.

Total ERA in 2024ERA since May 12
Shota Imanaga2.965.06
Justin Steele3.162.68
Javier Assad3.044.43
Jameson Taillon2.903.86
Cubs Starters’ ERAs in 2024 vs. ERAs since May 12

While their starting rotation has not been nearly as much of an issue as their offense in recent weeks, there’s still been notable declines, which could contribute to a further slide in the standings if they persist.

The Cubs Bullpen Hasn’t Been as it’s Seemed

While certain high leverage bullpen arms have been poor in recent weeks for the Cubs, such as Hector Neris and Mark Leiter Jr., the bullpen as whole has actually not been the issue during this recent slide.

From Opening Day until May 12th the Cubs bullpen ranked as one of the worst bullpens in the major leagues. Their .243 average against ranked 20th in the league, while their 4.58 ERA and 1.42 WHIP ranked 24th and 28th, respectively.

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But since this slide started, it’s been more of a testament to their offensive shortcomings and their starting pitching hiccups than the performance of their relievers. Their bullpen has actually improved to become more of a league average bullpen during this time.

Their bullpen average against has has fallen 14 points to .229, their ERA has dropped 19 points to 4.46 and their WHIP is down six points to 1.36.

Where Do The Cubs Go From Here?

Given their dip in form it would not be out of the question if the Cubs were to sell at the deadline. Their offense and starting rotation have performed worse than did to start the season and they lack consistent reliability in the back-end of the bullpen.

But the argument can also be made for buying at the deadline considering that an 7.5 game slide in form to second-last in their division has them only two games out of a Wild Card spot.

It’s important to note that when the Cubs had marquee tradeable assets like impending free agents Bellinger, Happ and Marcus Stroman at last year’s trade deadline, they opted to compete rather than cash in. So given the poor state of the National League as a whole, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that the Cubs make a push ahead of the deadline, especially considering they ended up bringing back Bellinger and Happ on sizeable deals.

The Cubs also feature six top 100 prospects in Just Baseball’s most recent update, meaning they have a plethora of talent on the farm to make an impactful move, even multiple if they decide to really take advantage of a poorer performing National League than normal and go for it over the upcoming weeks.

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This means that with multiple players locked up to multi-year deals, a plethora of riches in the minors and management that has gone for it in similar circumstances in years past, buying could make more sense for the Cubs in 2024.

But Jed Hoyer, Carter Hawkins and Co. need to decide their course of action sooner rather than later though, as with nine teams in the hunt for the final two postseason spots in NL there are significantly more teams in the mix for guys on the trade block than there has been in years’ past.

And at this point staying put and doing nothing is not an option as their current slide has shown their offseason plans may have bore fruit early on but have since come up flat in recent weeks. Who knows how far they’ll continue to fall with this current gameplan as the stats show there’s not a lot of reason to believe that brighter days are to come in 2024 if they don’t have a clear plan for this trade deadline.