Quantifying Hope: Skid Drops Cubs to 36.5% Playoff Odds, Third in Division

I missed last week because I was on the road to the middle of nowhere in central Michigan, so the Cubs’ stretch of bad play since our previous installment makes for a stark drop. Their playoff odds were a little over 65% at that point, but dropping nine of 12 games in the meantime has them at 36.5% entering play against the Reds this afternoon. Remember when we thought they just needed to tread water until everyone was healthy?

Well, they’ve had a full complement of regulars for a while now and they’re actually playing worse. They can’t win when they don’t homer and they still can’t win even when they hit three homers. The bullpen blows leads on the rare occasions the Cubs have them and gives up even more runs when the Cubs are behind. This is a team-wide funk.

Out of 10 players with 20 or more plate appearances in the last two weeks, only three — Ian Happ (132), Cody Bellinger (108), and Michael Busch (103) — have above-average wRC+ marks. Five other players — I don’t want to waste time typing their names out — are at 75 or below, meaning they’ve been at least 25% worse than the average offensive producer. We could caution about small samples, but that works both ways. Which is to say they should have some dudes massively outperforming their regular production.

To that point, there are 92 players across MLB who’ve put up a 133 wRC+ or better over the last 14 days. That’s an average of three per team, with even the lowly Oakland A’s boasting five players putting up better numbers than any Cubs player. The Reds have just one — Stuart Fairchild (188) — though three others are at 119 or better. The White Sox have three players at 141 or higher. What I’m getting at here is that just about every team features more dangerous hitters right now.

That can certainly change, and it has to if the Cubs want to climb back into the race. We’re almost to June, so it’s reaching the point where we can talk seriously about these odds and the team’s play bearing significance. At 5.5 games back and just 1.5 out of fourth place, the Cubs need to pick up the pace or risk having to pull off another sprint like last year. Remember how that worked out?

If they don’t want to have to run back up the hill they’re currently sliding down, something needs to change. Ideally, that would mean the everyday guys who were expected to carry the team actually start pulling their weight again. Hoping for the front office to pull off a big trade for a legit star bat is probably going to leave you disappointed, especially in light of what GM Carter Hawkins said recently.

“I hope it wouldn’t be said that we’ve been conservative. I mean, we’ve definitely spent some significant amounts of money on a guy like Cody Bellinger [at a huge discount over projections] this offseason or a guy like Dansby Swanson [last and cheapest shortstop to sign in his class] or even a guy like Jameson Taillon or a guy like Shōta Imanaga [huge discount],” he told 670 The Score’s Parkins & Spiegel. “There’s definitely been some urgency to field a competitive team to compete for the playoffs and beyond.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as conservative, but are we trading our entire farm system for 2024? No, we’re not trying to do that either. I would hope that it’s a measured aggression with the idea that we’re going to be winning for a long, long time here and want to stay set up for that. That’s the constant balance, you know, looking at your team this year and saying ‘Hey look, if I pull every lever we can be better,’ but there’s a cost to that.”

Okay, cool, but there are huge problems with this mentality. First, you can’t win for a long, long time if you don’t start winning at some point. Second, Bellinger could opt out after this season and Swanson’s contract is already looking a little stale as he struggles to find himself both at the plate and in the field. Third, the Cubs lack personality and, while they may be able to get some from the minors, they appear to be unwilling to spend what it takes to land a player who will give them any real sense of identity.

Ownership has no problem spending/making money to change the identity of the ballpark, like how they’re putting up giant signage to block the view of one of the few rooftops they don’t own.

The idea of “measured aggression” is well and good if you hit big on all the value-based deals you make, but it’ll bite you in the ass if it means passing on a number of stars who could have formed the core of a long-term winner. There’s still plenty of time for the Cubs to turn this season around and make Hawkins and Jed Hoyer look like geniuses. There’s also plenty of time for them to look like idiots.

How the roster plays moving forward will determine just how that perspective comes into focus.

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