How soon is now? Cubs go all in on present after thrilling two week stretch

Just two weeks ago, the Chicago Cubs trailed the National League Central leading Milwaukee Brewers by 7.5 games, and their 46-51 record put them six games back of the NL Wild Card.

Things were looking bleak ahead of the 1 August trade deadline; they essentially had ten games to save their season.

Failure meant selling for a third straight year and while the Cubs farm system would have benefited greatly from the kind of prospects Cody Bellinger, Marcus Stroman and some of the bullpen arms could have landed them – only the most pragmatic of fans wanted the 2023 season to end that way.

The players and coaching staff clearly didn’t want that either, something they showed over the course of a stretch where they went 8-2, outscoring their opponents (namely the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox) 56-37.

Come Sunday 30 July – their day of reckoning, if you will – their record had improved to 53-52, putting them one game above .500, four games back in the division and 3.5 games back in the NL Wild Card.

Speaking to reporters this week, President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer said the comeback win over the White Sox on 26 July and Mike Tauchman’s game-saving catch (which felt like a season-defining moment at the time) in St. Louis two days later convinced him to back this year’s roster rather than tear it down at the deadline.

Hoyer did so by making some low-key, measured additions, the biggest of which came in the form of former Cub and 2016 World Series winner Jeimer Candelario.

Arguably the best rental bat on this year’s market, the switch-hitting third baseman could be crucial in an infield that’s heavy on right-handed hitting, while his ability to shift between third and first – addressing both of the Cubs greatest areas of need – immediately gives them more options and a starter-calibre bat to extend their line up.

And yet his acquisition came at a cost, as Trey Mancini was designated for assignment to clear a spot on the 40 man on Tuesday. While the move came as something of a surprise (if only because the Cubs just signed him to a two-year, $14 million contract this offseason), it offered a reminder of just how ruthless Hoyer can be. After all, Mancini has been inconsistent with the bat all year – as his .234/.299/.336 with a .635 OPS slashline shows. His struggles at first were also on full display during the London Series, resulting in a -6.5 DEF (defensive runs above average) according to FanGraphs – worst on the Cubs.

The team has recently prospered from playing Bellinger there, although Candelario’s arrival now means that he can return to centerfield, where he’s been elite.

The new acquisition had an instant impact too, hitting .889 (8-for-9) in his first two games with the team, spurring the Cubs to three straight wins over the Cincinnati Reds that saw them score a combined 36 runs in two games (their most in a two-game span since at least 1900) to turn the tide in what could prove to be a pivotal series.

Although the trade for Candelario or the ones that saw the Cubs add relief depth in the form of Jose Cuas and Josh Roberson don’t exactly amount to the big splash some fans were hoping for (there were some rumblings about Pete Alonso on Twitter earlier this week), it signalled the team’s intent and should set them up to make a division race that’s looked lacklustre this year (following the Cardinals glorious implosion) interesting over the next couple of months.

Whether they’re capable of anything more than that remains to be seen. They do, after all, still have just a 32.5% chance of making the playoffs and a 12.2% chance of making the Wild Card, according to PECOTA. But this team seems to thrive on being the underdog, as they’ve shown over the last couple of weeks. And, if they can maintain their hot streak through their next three series against the Braves, Mets and Blue Jays things could get interesting.

Whatever happens, the Cubs have already exceeded a lot of fans’ preseason expectation.

In my season preview, I wrote that I hoped they could “beat the odds, overcome the projections and perhaps even bring competitive summer baseball back to beautiful, historic Wrigley Field this season”. They’ve already done that, providing a whole host of surprises and truly memorable moments along the way, going some way at least to avoiding the prolonged rebuild they looked set to have to endure after trading away their World Series winning core back in 2021.

Thanks to the prospects they acquired while dismantling that team the future looks bright. Thanks to the past couple of weeks, so now does the present. At least for now.

Featured image by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Sean Guest is the Chicago Cubs correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest

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