Kyle Hendricks couldn’t help but laugh after his postgame media availability ended Sunday.
As much as the Chicago Cubs have tried to ignore the inevitable questions surrounding the trade deadline the last couple of weeks, their inconsistencies and a brutal May performance had them trending toward a third consecutive season as sellers. Their turnaround, winning 10 of their last 12 games, successfully shifted the focus onto how they would improve the roster rather than what the Cubs’ most valuable assets could net in return.
“I do appreciate that, the shift in tone,” Hendricks said, smiling, of the trade deadline seller-turned-buyer questions.
So when they ended their series Sunday in St. Louis with a 3-0 loss to halt their season-high eight-game winning streak, the Cubs could still appreciate what they accomplished over the last two weeks and the opportunity that lies ahead over the next two months. They stepped up to deliver the wins and the movement up the standings that President Jed Hoyer and the front office needed to see to shift the organization’s direction leading into Tuesday’s 5 p.m. trade deadline.
“Honestly, the mental lift will come in the next couple days when it’s over,” Hendricks said. “It’s been talked about for a long time and as much as you try and block it out, we have been doing a great job with it and focusing on what we do here, but to not have get these questions in another couple days and just questions about how the team is doing, how you’re feeling, how it’s going — that’s what we want to focus on.
“It’ll be much easier to tune out the noise after another two days, but we love where we’re at. We know exactly what we’ve got in here and we’re super excited where we’re headed.”
The Cubs don’t have much room under the competitive balance tax (CBT) — just under $4.9 million left, according to Cot’s Contracts at Baseball Prospectus — to acquire upgrades. Chairman Tom Ricketts told the Tribune in January that they must be strategic when they go over the CBT threshold because of the penalties that are accrued for repeat offenders: “So there will be times I’m sure in the near future where we’ll go over. But we’ll always keep in mind that there’s a balance there you have to always look to manage.”
A team that has clawed its way back into the playoff race, largely thanks to the roll they’ve been on the last two weeks, typically isn’t the type that gets an upper-tier in-season roster investment to go over the CBT. The Cubs still have avenues to address roster weaknesses that can help their playoff push, particularly in two areas: the bullpen and a corner infielder with some pop.
Their bullpen has become more cohesive in the last few weeks through Julian Merryweather, Mark Leiter Jr. and Adbert Alzolay stabilizing the late-game high-leverage situations. Their heavy workloads and lack of postseason experience are factors the Cubs must consider.
Merryweather has already exceeded last year’s combined innings with the Blue Jays and in the minors. His 46 innings for the Cubs represent his most at any level since 2017 between Double A and Triple A in Cleveland’s organization as a starter. Leiter has pitched in more games through the first four months than he did all season with the Cubs last year and is 24 innings away from exceeding his big-league innings total from 2022, which largely came in less high-leverage opportunities. Alzolay has adjusted well to the closer role but didn’t pitch much last year because of a shoulder injury.
Trading for at least one and ideally two veteran relievers would help alleviate potential usage concerns and provide Ross with more experienced options over the final two months.
The lineup is top-heavy and overall lacks consistent power, an issue that has existed since the end of last season. First base and third base are the clear spots the Cubs can improve through a trade. Ross has been using Bellinger at first base more frequently against righties to allow Mike Tauchman to slot into the leadoff spot as their center fielder. That has helped the Cubs’ run-scoring potential the last couple of weeks. But the right-handed power options are bleak in the corner infield positions.
Trey Mancini’s struggles have reduced him to a platoon-player role, and even when he starts against lefties, manager David Ross has often lifted him for a pinch-hitter versus a right-handed reliever, as he did Sunday. The Cubs’ .680 OPS from first basemen ranks 27th in the majors and they rank last with minus-0.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Although Patrick Wisdom’s 18 home runs lead the Cubs, the strikeouts remain a problem and his defense has taken a step back. Ross has tried to find good matchups based on his swing profile, but Wisdom could lose more playing time if they find a right-handed power upgrade to complement Nick Madrigal’s hit tool.
The Cubs playing meaningful games in August and September is the type of short- and long-term goal the franchise needed to experience this year.
“Does it feel good when the front office gets a piece? Of course. Every team would say that, every player would say that,” Ross said this weekend. “I don’t pretend to not think that pieces help when every team probably has areas they want to improve and when you get to do that, that’s great.
“The tough part about the trade deadline is trying to continue to see the positives and the wins and things you need to do. Looking ahead and worrying about the other stuff is out of your control.”