Marcus Stroman earned his MLB-leading 15th quality start on Saturday afternoon, aided by an offense that gave him eight runs of support (they added two more after he left). Four of those came from Cody Bellinger, whose grand slam was his fifth homer in his last six games. Depending on how you view the Cubs’ glass, those performances either pushed the team closer to buying at the deadline or increased the prospect return Jed Hoyer can ask for when he inevitably moves both players.
Stroman has long been seen as a trade chip because he has a $21 million player option for a third year with the Cubs that he will almost certainly turn down no matter what uniform he’s wearing at the end of the year. That was his plan when he signed a deal with the Cubs just ahead of the lockout that began in late 2021, as it allowed him to net a higher AAV than comparable free-agent pitchers while hitting the market again with another shot at a long-term deal.
Bellinger has a mutual $12 million option that he will likewise decline in favor of a much larger, longer deal this offseason. He and agent Scott Boras reportedly spurned multiyear offers in order to capitalize on what they believed would be a resurgent year, and that’s exactly what has happened. But while big paydays are assured for both players, whether or not they’ll still be in Chicago after August 1 remains a big question.
“Everyone’s always putting this emphasis on, ‘Oh, we need to play good in seven days, 10 days, and then we can be buyers,’” Stroman told the media after Saturday’s win. “But I truly don’t believe in that. This division’s wide open. And then if you even look deeper than that, as an organization, why would you not want to be competitive for multiple years, year after year after year?
“Belli’s a guy who changes your lineup. He’s a guy who, why would you want him to get away? Why would you want [to deal away] a guy like myself, who goes out there and gives you quality starts in a league that it’s incredibly hard to do. It’s incredibly hard to say, ‘Oh, we’re gonna get this production out of this young guy’ or ‘We’re gonna get this.'”
Look, I’m as bullish on Pete Crow-Armstrong as anyone, but there’s no guarantee he can come up and be anywhere near as good as Bellinger has been. And though I think Jordan Wicks and Cade Horton can be rotation mainstays for years to come, expecting them to be aces would be foolish. At the risk of making a blanket statement some of you may bristle at, Cubs fans got really spoiled by prospect outcomes in 2015-16 and have been hoodwinked into believing rebuilds are a foolproof way to achieve competitiveness.
There’s also a sense that Bellinger and Stroman will each bring back stud prospects like PCA, who the Cubs got for Javier Báez and Trevor Williams at the ’21 deadline. That was more about the Mets making a mistake that affected their willingness to deal with the Cubs for Willson Contreras last year, so it shouldn’t really be seen as an example of the kind of player other teams would be willing to part with for a two-month rental.
A better benchmark might be the Joc Pederson trade that same season, though he admittedly wasn’t playing as well as Bellinger is. In any case, the Braves sent A-ball slugger Bryce Ball to the Cubs in exchange for the left fielder who went on to key a shocking World Series run. Less than two years later, the Cubs released Ball in the midst of a rough season between High-A and Double-A.
It’s easy to say in retrospect, but the Cubs would have been better off keeping a fan favorite around to help sell a few more tickets. That’s kind of what they did with Contreras, though Dusty Baker might be more responsible for that than anyone. The Cubs could opt to hold onto Bellinger, and the resultant compensatory draft pick would mean they didn’t let him walk for nothing.
Given all the factors, from their competitive timeline to organizational roster limits, the only way they can responsibly move Bellinger is if they’re blown away by the deal.
The same is true for Stroman, though it shouldn’t just be a matter of whether the Cubs trade either player or slap one with a qualifying offer* once they decline their options. Stroman has remained steadfast in his desire to remain with the Cubs well into the future and he reiterated that again on Saturday.
“I know Belli wants to stay,” Stroman said. “I know I would love to stay here, but a lot of that’s out of our control. At the end of the day, it’s a business, so we have to treat it as such even though we have this love for this fanbase and this organization. It’s hard to kinda separate it at times.
“But yeah, I love being a Cub. I love everything about it. But as someone who’s been through it before, you kinda have to distance yourself a bit because a lot of it’s out of your control. And no matter how much I love it, I can wake up tomorrow and be gone. So it’s tough. But I love everything about the City of Chicago and this organization, and no matter what happens I would hope that they would be in the mix in the offseason when it comes to my free agency.”
Leaving the door open there is mildly interesting, though it’s very rare that a player who is traded away ends up coming back in free agency. It happens, sure, just not often enough to put any real hope in such a scenario playing out. Not to mention the price will likely be higher in free agency than it would have been had the Cubs engaged Stroman and his agent in multiple attempts to initiate extension talks.
Maybe Bellinger hasn’t made those same attempts and doesn’t really feel as strongly as Stroman about staying in Chicago longer than he absolutely has to. And perhaps the contract figures being stated or implied simply don’t make sense to Jed Hoyer and other organization leaders. All I know is that the Cubs have players who can help them win both now and in the future, but it’s possible they’ll both be gone in two weeks and the club will be further away from competing next year as a result.
If the Cubs do indeed sell at the deadline, which shouldn’t even be a topic of consertion at this point in the process, it’ll be their third straight season doing so. Regardless of how much veracity you discerned from their oft-stated goal of trying to win in ’23, failing to do so leaves Hoyer with zero margin for error moving forward. Seems like securing at least one of the dynamic duo of Stroman and Bellinger would be a good way to buy leeway, but Hoyer must like to live dangerously.
*Stroman accepted a QO from the Mets for the ’21 and thus cannot be extended another.