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Top of the Program: Cubs Need a Spark

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Tuesday and Friday I'll be kicking off your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Things have turned sour for the Chicago Cubs since the end of April. Over the weekend, they lost three of their four games against the Reds, dropping their record to 32-34 before their next three-game series against the Rays in Tampa Bay.

The Cubs got off to a strong start, with a 17-9 record that ranked third in the National League, but a 17-0 loss to the Red Sox on April 27 started a miserable 15-25 run. Since then, only the rotten White Sox have fewer wins than their crosstown rivals during that 40-game span. So what went wrong? And what can the Cubs do to fix it? We'll get to that second, more difficult question later, but before we answer it, let's answer the first one because it's so simple. What went wrong? Pretty much everything.

As of April 27, the Cubs ranked 25th in the majors with an 87 wRC+, down from the sixth-place 112 wRC+ they posted through their first 26 games. Meanwhile, over their last 40 games, their pitching staff has a 4.14 ERA, which ranks 19th. Their bullpen has been terrible, with a 4.90 ERA which is the fourth worst mark in the majors during that time. Even putting the ball in was a struggle; despite the dominance of Gold Glovers Dansby Swanson and Nico Hoerner in the center field positions, Chicago was among the seven worst defensive clubs in the majors, with -20 DRS and -10 OAA.

Jed Hoyer's tenure as president of baseball operations has been defined by building depth and expanding capacity rather than star power. Despite running one of four franchises valued at $4 billion or more, Hoyer has yet to sign a player to a contract larger than Swanson's $177 million, and as things stand, he has never handed out a deal worth $30 million in a single season. (If Cody Bellinger were to opt out after the season, the Cubs would pay him a total of $30 million, but that wouldn't be $30 million for one year; instead, Bellinger would earn $25 million in 2024, with $5 million allocated through 2025 .)

Obviously, there are no free agents to sign right now, and it remains to be seen if the Cubs will be in the market for the best players available this coming offseason. (As of now, Juan Soto and Corbin Burnes look like the only two who will command annual averages of $30 million or more.) But allowing full contract terms to be the enemy of good teams is arguably what has kept the Cubs from making the postseason at all. non-COVID years from 2019. The team has at least been loosely linked to Bryce Harper, Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Carlos Correa in their free agent years, all but Bogaerts being the Cubs best player right now. Of course, there are many aspects to signing a free agent without offering a lot of money — Turner prefers to be out east, for example — but the Cubs' inability, or perhaps lack of desire, to even come close to finalizing deals with elite free agents. it may have a direct bearing on the team's performance over the past few seasons.

This doesn't mean that everything the Cubs have recently signed hasn't happened yet. Swanson's deal looked good last year when he hit 22 home runs, posted a 104 wRC+, and was worth 4.4 WAR; we mustn't forget that just because you are struggling this year. Likewise, Chicago's decision to sign Shota Imanaga was a smart one. Although he didn't come to the US with the same hype as Yamamoto, and therefore came cheap, Imanaga was arguably the best pitcher in last season's free agent class.

But along with these two smart signings, there are a number of other “mid-level” free agents that didn't work out, among them deals for pitchers Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly, Michael Fulmer, Brad Boxberger, first baseman/DH Trey Mancini, and catcher Tucker Barnhart . Getting these value deals from middle class players has led to mediocre performance for Chicago. The Cubs can spend more money than they have under Hoyer, and part of the reason they're struggling right now is because they don't have enough top-level talent to compete with top teams. To get star level players, you need to pay star level prices. Maybe those numbers are exorbitant and don't make sense in dollar-per-MPI terms, but they're often necessary to put together a winning roster, especially for clubs with the financial flexibility to overpay players. As Dodgers president of baseball Andrew Friedman says, common sense doesn't cut most deals. That sentiment can be applied to trades as well — the Cubs haven't made a significant change on the buying side since acquiring Jose Quintana in the 2017 season.

That reluctance to swing at big trades has paid off, however, because it gives the Cubs an incredibly deep farm system. In their piece on the Cubs' top prospects, Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin described the league's organizational structure as “the best” in MLB, noting that the franchise has 100 (9) more prospects than any other team.

But, having a good farm system doesn't mean much if you're not going to use your opportunities to improve your big league club or trade them for strong players from other teams.

The Cubs have already tried the former, to mixed results. Three of their top nine top 100 prospects are already on the big league roster: first baseman Michael Busch, who has a solid 123 wRC+ at first; Pete Crow-Armstrong, who has struggled at the plate (60 wRC+) but is already one of the best center fielders (4 OAA, 6 DRS); and Jordan Wicks, whose peripherals (4.01 xERA and 3.23 FIP) show he's been better than his 4.44 ERA in five starts and relief appearances would suggest. The problem is that none of them, at least not yet, are good enough to help the Cubs break through.

So where do the Cubs go from here? Well, they probably can't look inside the organization to stop the bleeding. Defender Owen Caissie, their sixth-ranked prospect and no. 69 overall, he's tearing it up in Triple-A right now (130 wRC+ in 238 plate appearances), but he's the only one of their six top-100 prospects in the minors who is close to being ready for the bigs. Instead, the best way to fix things this offseason will likely involve trading at least four of their top prospects: Crow-Armstrong, right fielder Cade Horton (who is still struggling right now), infielder Matt Shaw, and outfielder Kevin . Alcántara.

If the Cubs don't think they can sign Soto or Burnes, trading for older stars is their only option to get a player who can significantly improve the position and ceiling of a roster that has more value than quality, with Bellinger, Christopher Morel, and Seiya Suzuki showing flashes of stardom but not consistently. The Cubs haven't had a consistent All-Star offense since the days of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo; on the pitching side, they haven't had a single ace starter since Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks at their peak — though Imanaga appears to be on his way. They haven't had a season-long closer since Wade Davis in 2017.

Ultimately, if the goal is to win — and with Craig Counsell commanding $8 million a year, it should be — then acquiring a true anchor for the roster is essential. But if the team seems to be missing out on one star player like Luis Robert Jr., or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to make a difference, then the best course of action may be to advance the farm system by selling before this year's trade deadline, even if they only trade rental relievers like Smyly and Héctor Neris. They can then know that this coming season is when they are more aggressive than wise, they go to the market instead of waiting for it to come to them. If they go all in and sign Soto, he'll be the best hitter they've had in decades. And despite some of the questions about Pete Alonso's long-term viability, he will be the team's biggest threat since Sammy Sosa. With one or both of those stars on the roster, the Cubs will be able to allow the top players in their farm system to develop while contributing to supporting roles instead of fulfilling their potential right away.

Whether it comes now, in the regular season, or in the off-season, the Cubs have to do it something different. Going back to the source with good players is how you get weak teams.

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