Why Cardinals will decide Cubs' direction at trade deadline


The Cubs swept the defending-champion Dodgers two weeks ago. And this week they took three out of four from a Nationals team what won baseball’s last full-season championship.

But keep an eye on St. Louis if you want to know what this 2021 Cubs team is all about — and, more specifically, what direction it might go after the July 30 trade deadline.

Because six years after the Cubs beat the Cardinals in the rivals’ only postseason series to launch the most celebrated stretch of success in franchise history, the Cards might be in unique position to slam that window shut on the Cubs’ core.

Or to open it back up just enough to give oxygen to another wild ride into the fall.

The flawed Cardinals are just good enough seven weeks into the season to claim first place in the National League Central by three games over the flawed Cubs, who are just good enough to make team president Jed Hoyer insist he has “a very open mind” about the team’s direction at the trade deadline.

Of course, Hoyer also said this during Thursday’s same conversation with media about his message to fans regarding the future with the Cubs of Kris Bryant, the pending free agent star: “I’d say enjoy watching him right now, and we’ll have those discussions in the future.”

Enjoy Bryant until he finishes off a second MVP season with another team? Enjoy All-Stars Javy Báez and Anthony Rizzo while you can, until they, too, are shipped out by July 30 or become free agents at the end of the season?

Hoyer didn’t put any of that so bluntly. But all of that is in play, perhaps even more than it was when the season started, considering that no extension discussions have been had with any of those players since then, Hoyer said.

Which brings the Cubs right back to St. Louis, where they face their rivals for the first time this season Friday night in the opener of a three-game series.

Which brings the conversation right back to the trade deadline for the Cubs.

Friday’s game is the first of 13 chances between now and July 22 for the Cardinals to bury the Cubs in the division and kill the front office’s and ownership’s appetite to buy at the deadline — or 13 games for the Cubs to make their own statement at the top of the division and force Hoyer’s hand.

“It’s a little different,” Hoyer said of the fluidity of the Cubs’ position approaching the end of May in what could be the final year together for a significant part of the 2016 championship core.

“You definitely have to prepare for a bunch of different outcomes. That isn’t always the case,” he said as he starts planning scouting assignments for buy or sell scenarios. “We have to be prepared for anything.”

The Cubs aren’t getting enough innings from their starting rotation this season — never mind enough quality innings — to seriously be considered contenders at this point.

But if the bullpen continues to compensate well enough over the next few weeks and the lineup continues its four-week surge, can they stay on their 11-6 May trend line long enough to justify chasing a big starting pitcher at the deadline?

Or will that rotation, along with the Cardinals and two west coast trips in June, fatally expose their flaws and compel one of the most painful deadline selloffs the fan base seen?

The returns this week of Cubs postseason heroes Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber with the Nationals after their departures over the winter hinted at the emotions involved — with standing ovations, video-board tributes and heartfelt reunions of old friends at the ballpark during the four-game series.

Imagine Kris Bryant returning with the Dodgers or Báez with the Yankees or Rizzo with the Mets.

“There’s been times we haven’t achieved the levels that we wanted [in recent seasons], but these players are iconic players for the Cubs,” Hoyer said. “We’ve seen a couple of these guys come back here [this week] and how they’ve been treated. And these guys that we have are absolutely at that level or even higher.

“And we’d love to continue to have those players going forward. Nothing has changed that feeling the way this season has started.”

But there’s no denying that the way the season goes over the next six or seven weeks could change everything.

If the team plays well?

“I anticipate that if we’re in position to be a buyer that we’ll have the budgetary flexibility to do that,” he said.

If it doesn’t, he said he anticipates having conversations, “whether with the agent or just one-on-one,” to determine those “iconic” players’ stances on extension terms before acting in July.

That said, the pandemic isn’t over; full capacity hasn’t been green-lighted for ballparks in Chicago yet; and budget projections from an ownership group up to its eyeballs in real estate-related debt is anything but certain.

“As far as the budget for ’22 and beyond, those are conversations we’ll have to have when we get a feel for what we can anticipate next year and going forward,” Hoyer said.

Besides, even if Hoyer reopens negotiations with any or all of the pending free agents, “I wouldn’t be honest about it,” he said. “I would say we’re not.”

So take that any way you want. Maybe the Cubs are actually in negotiations with somebody now. Or maybe you’d better enjoy watching them while they last in a Cubs uniform.

For now, the greater truth might lie in whatever the Cardinals have to say about the Cubs between now and then.

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