2023 MLB trade deadline: The Cubs’ quick pivot to buyer status perfectly captures this year’s NL wild-card race

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Two weeks ago, on July 17, the Chicago Cubs gave up a two-run homer to Jeimer Candelario in the first inning and lost to the Washington Nationals to drop to 43-50. Losers of three of four coming out of the All-Star break, their playoff odds dove to a nadir of just 6%, and they looked primed to sell off key pieces such as Cody Bellinger at the trade deadline.

Instead, on Monday, they traded for Candelario to add to a team that has lost three times since then.

Forget selling Bellinger or Marcus Stroman, which at one point appeared to position Chicago as the clearinghouse for the most impactful players to be moved this week. The Cubs have pivoted to full-on buying after ripping off a winning streak that had them back to 53-52, with 27.4% postseason odds, when reports broke Monday that they had swung the deal for Candelario. Amazingly, they might wind up acquiring — not dealing — the best position player to switch uniforms at this deadline. Candelario ranks 28th in position-player WAR at FanGraphs, thanks to a batting line 21% better than average and strong defense at both corner infield spots.

That’s the type of turnabout that has happened on the North Side, and it reflects the level of flux in MLB’s wild-card races and, thus, in the trade deadline posture of their participants. Only six games separate the Cincinnati Reds (NL Central leaders) and San Francisco Giants (top NL wild card) from the disappointing but still hopeful San Diego Padres. Yet there are eight teams crammed into that space, battling in close quarters for four playoff spots. All of them have revealed themselves as buyers or are rumored to be heading that direction.

This also reflects the fluidity of the Cubs’ position. Analysts (points at self) had largely counted the Cubs out of the 2023 race as recently as this month, when the cavalry just had not arrived, despite some obviously savvy offseason moves, including the one-year reboot deal for Bellinger and the long-term commitment to shortstop Dansby Swanson.

The rest of the picture in Chicago is confusing at best. The under-30 group seemingly meant to lead the charge with Swanson is headlined by Nico Hoerner, Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki, and that trio simply has not hit — certainly not enough to inspire confidence or the spark of excitement apparent in, say, Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, more surprising names have staked claims as key pieces. Justin Steele, the 27-year-old pitcher, has a confounding fastball and an ERA that ranks 14th in baseball since the start of 2022 (minimum 200 innings). Second-year utilityman Christopher Morel, 24, has launched 16 homers in 62 games. Scrap-heap signing Mike Tauchman has gotten on base consistently and last week launched himself into temporary folk-hero status with a game-saving home-run robbery.

As for staying power? Steele is building a great case, but the rest of the roster behind Swanson has some serious work to do, which makes it difficult for the front office to build decisively. Even after a torrid, perspective-flipping stretch, it’s fair to wonder whether president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer would’ve been better off, in the medium- to long-term, dangling two months of Bellinger to try to reel in a foundational young player.

The prospects sent back to Washington — pitcher DJ Herz and shortstop Kevin Made — weren’t in the top tier of the Cubs’ system, but the pendulum swing to buying is a significant choice. It’s two choices, really. It’s both a decision to give up a shot at accentuating the team’s middling youth movement and a decision to pay some price, however justifiable, to chase results in 2023. Two years after a massive sell-off that gutted the core of the 2016 World Series club, the Cubs have blown through whatever stop signs might’ve been in the corners of their vision.

Of course, there is something to the hope inherent in a team looking at the out-of-town scoreboard instead of the minor-league box scores. And the rest of this season, that will be on offer at Wrigley Field for the first time in a little while. The Cubs entered Monday exactly 12th in team offensive production (by wRC+) and exactly 12th in team pitching production (by ERA) in a sport in which 12 teams make the playoffs. The Wikipedia page for “fringe contender” should redirect to Chicago’s Baseball-Reference page.

Maybe this is the best way to stress test those young-ish players, even if they don’t turn out to be precious gems. Maybe Candelario will be a particularly impactful addition, given that the Cubs rank 23rd in offensive production from their first and third basemen.

The Cubs can accurately note that they have the best run differential in the NL Central by a healthy margin, that they might be due for some cluster luck to tip a few additional wins their way and that teams in worse positions have landed in the World Series in recent seasons (2019 Washington Nationals, 2022 Philadelphia Phillies).

Why not them? Well, it’s hard to come up with a great retort.

In a bunched-up National League in which only the Atlanta Braves have truly separated themselves, the Cubs can say they are in it to win it. This is a wild-card race, and if the past two weeks have proven anything, it’s that this team might be worthy of the moniker.

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