The Cubs got one back Tuesday.
Even if it’s too little too late as the Cubs turn the calendar on another month nowhere near turning a corner on their season, much less on the longer-term rebuild process.
“I know everyone’s kind of focused on staying in the moment,” second baseman Nick Madrigal said Tuesday upon returning from a back injury that cost him three weeks on the injured list -- a few hours before the Cubs snapped a three-game losing streak with an 8-7 win over the first-place Brewers.
But those players also know that as the season heads into June with Seiya Suzuki, two-fifths of the starting rotation and six other guys from the planned roster sidelined by injuries, the fourth-place Cubs’ status as sellers at the trade deadline is all but assured.
“That’s out of my control,” said Madrigal, who was traded out of a pennant race at the last deadline to the Cubs in the deal that sent Craig Kimbrel to the White Sox.
“We have a really good clubhouse at the moment,” he said. “It seems like the vibes are still upbeat even though we’ve had some bad breaks here and there.
“But I know there’s a lot of baseball left in the season.”
That’s the good news and bad news for the Cubs, depending on which Cub you are.
Mostly, it means it’s time to start using the long runway left in this season to test what the Cubs have as they go full rebuild mode — more than twice the runway they had for tryouts and look-sees last year after blowing up the roster.
And that means as much as Nico Hoerner can handle at short, as many positions as bright-light-of-the-month Chris Morel can handle as long as he keeps handling big-league pitching, another start this week, at least, for Matt Swarmer, a steady diet of at-bats for Clint Frazier to prove he has the ceiling that glimpses at his talent have suggested in his career, and more of Morel’s “bestie,” Nelson Velázquez over the next four months.
It should also mean a debut of top pitching prospect Caleb Kilian before long — maybe by the end of the week, with starter Drew Smyly (oblique) headed to the IL, if the Cubs can work out the 40-man roster issues.
It’s not what most people holding some of the highest-priced tickets in the sport figure they’re paying for when they buy those tickets.
But it’s something to pay attention to, if not something worth watching as the Cubs limp toward a second straight deadline selloff and second straight losing season.
The biggest questions left:
1. How many are headed out of Chicago by the Aug. 2 deadline in addition to Willson Contreras and David Robertson? Smyly and Wade Miley seemed certain to be flipped at the deadline until recent injuries, and Ian Happ and Marcus Stroman both have shown up on early lists of trade candidates.
2. How many more debuts will we see? Swarmer, Velázquez and Anderson Espinoza all debuted on Monday alone — the first time at least three players debuted for the Cubs on the same day in 51 years. The Cubs already have played 13 rookies this year and might have a chance to put an entire lineup of them together before this thing is over.
3. How many games will they lose? After back-to-back losing months to open the season, the Cubs were on pace for 96 losses, even with Tuesday's late-inning win — which would be the most since they lost that many in 2013 (the year after 101 losses), the other time they went through this severe-rebuild thing. If that pace increases after the trade deadline, well, put it this way: They’ve lost 100 in a season only three times.
4. How attached is Cubs ownership to the $41.5 million left on Jason Heyward’s contract? Recent behavior suggests very, very attached — enough that eating that amount would make them violently ill. But the Cubs already given his right-field position to Suzuki, are taking their time bringing him back from the COVID-19-related IL (he was medically cleared Saturday), and the former Gold Glove winner and 2016 champion has just three extra-base hits and a .551 OPS to show for 27 games of platoon play this year. Given the club’s extreme 40-man-roster crunch, this is at least a conversation they can’t avoid.
That’s how far and fast the 2020 division champs have fallen since the owners of the highest-revenue team between the coasts started slashing costs, since Theo Epstein bolted with a year left on his contract and since Jed Hoyer started shredding the roster of popular, All-Star players.
Contreras, who homered and doubled Tuesday night is almost certainly headed to a third All-Star game before he’s traded.
And if the Heyward question gets answered with another departure, that will leave only Kyle Hendricks from the 2016 championship.
And if that doesn’t make this seem a lot like that 2012 season during the start of the Great Chicago Tank, that’s probably because this might be worse.