Cubs Backed Further into Corner by Phillies Team Offering Alternate View of Roster Construction

The Cubs weren’t in a good spot heading into the final stretch of the first half and they began July with a loss to a team missing three of its top seven hitters according to wOBA. But even with Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, and J.T. Realmuto on the shelf, the Phillies were able to overpower their inferior opponents thanks to a huge contribution from their big-money shortstop. You know, one of the guys the Cubs looked so smart to have passed on in favor of Dansby Swanson‘s presumably more reasonable contract.

After a slow start in Philly last season, Turner (4.3 fWAR) finished just behind his Chicago-based colleague (4.7) in one major category while besting him in home runs (26 to 22) and wOBA (.333 to .325). Even though Swanson holds an early edge in the power numbers this season, Turner’s .382 wOBA is 94 points higher and his 2.0 fWAR is almost 50% greater (1.3). Of course, that could all change in a hurry either this year or over the course of their respective deals.

To that end, let’s take a look at the idea of value when it comes to the massive contracts Jed Hoyer likes to avoid. Harper’s deal pays him an average of $25.38 million per season and he’s earning an actual salary of $27.54 million this year. Swanson is earning an average of $25.3 million with an actual salary of $26 million this season and he’ll take home more than Harper in each of the next three seasons. You may have a different perspective on this, but I find at least as difficult to justify the Cubs’ avoidance of that Harper deal in hindsight as I did at the time.

Then you consider the fact that the Phillies have continued to add nine-figure contracts to the roster, which is something I’ve covered here before and won’t beat into the ground. Their payroll exceeds that of the Cubs and they’ll owe more in luxury tax overages, but they’ve been competitive the last few years and currently boast the best record in baseball. It helps that their pitching staff is replete with solid starters and a few relievers who can pump gas.

This is what can happen when you aren’t going into every single offseason attempting to thread the needle, a strategy Hoyer has mentioned more than once over the last few years. Now the Cubs have put themselves in a position where they’ll probably have to sell but may not be willing or able to move pieces of value. It’s like when we had a community garage sale and all I had to put out were things that were either broken or brand new and more expensive than anyone wanted to bother haggling over.

Hoyer knows that’s the deal and is certainly dreading what appears at this point to be an inevitably anticlimactic trade deadline.

“I mean, we have to play well this month,” Hoyer told reporters over the weekend in Milwaukee. “I think certainly you have to be a realist when you get to that point. But like I said, that’s not where we are mentally. But yeah, I think you always, in this job, you have to be a realist.

“You have to make your best decisions for the organization based on the hand you’re dealt that year. And we’ll see where that is.”

Everyone talks about trading Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki to make room for the young outfielders coming up through the system, but what kind of return are you getting for guys with full no-trade clauses? The Cubs aren’t getting for Cody Bellinger, not with his suppressed power numbers and player options for the next two seasons. You think Jameson Taillon is fetching a big haul?

The only players who would bring back a meaningful return are guys like Nico Hoerner and Justin Steele, but their respective departures would put a big dent in what the Cubs are trying to do over the next few seasons. When you build a roster that figures to win maybe 85 games even with good health and very strong performances from its key players, you risk being stuck in a no man’s land when it comes to making moves.

As things now stand, it appears the Cubs have too many holes to fill via trade and not enough movable pieces to acquire difference-making prospects from contenders. The big factor here that could still lead to a sell-off is that they’re doing all of this with an estimated $233 million payroll that projects to $233.5 million in CBT cost, less than $4 million below the first penalty threshold. Not exactly the definition of getting bang for your buck if you’re ownership, so just shedding salary might be the impetus for deadline moves.

The issue isn’t necessarily that the Cubs should be spending more, though I’d argue they most certainly should be in light of what they’re charging at Wrigley and how they need to pitch Marquee Sports Network to carriers. Where things have gone sideways is that they opted for budget-conscious signings over star players who could carry the team, leaving them mired in an uncompetitive position four seasons after their last postseason appearance and two since razing the foundation of their championship roster.

Now they could be faced with budget restrictions if Marquee continues to struggle with Comcast and other service providers in Chicagoland. Unless a change in the front office results in a different philosophy on massive long-term deals, they’re going to have to bank even more heavily on multiple prospects coming up and having an immediate impact. And we’re not talking Hoerner-level production, but legit superstars who can put the franchise on their shoulders.

As great as it would be for them to repeat the incredible success that led to that World Series title, it’s beyond difficult to look at the farm system and see the same kind of transcendent talent ready to burst through. They should hit on a few guys, sure, but does anyone else see multiple candidates for Rookie of the Year and MVP coming to Chicago soon? Perhaps it’s just pessimism from the current state of affairs coloring my opinion, because I do believe very strongly in the overall strength of the system.

Rather than belabor this further, I’ll just lay out my plan for the holiday weekend and urge you to do the same. Just take the Cubs for what they are right now and allow yourself to enjoy what you can when you can. They’re not good, so let’s celebrate the rare wins and look for silver linings when they shine through. Bitching about what Hoyer has or hasn’t done won’t magically change anything between now and the deadline, so I’m going to do my best to leave off with that line of thinking.

There’s too much else in life worth enjoying to let our favorite baseball team muck it all up, even if such muckery appears to have been entirely preventable.

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