I like the way Patrick Mooney framed how far we are into the Cubs season this year: as a percentage of the season (under 6%), it’s like the Cubs are entering the 4th quarter of their very first NFL game in the season. Hardly a sizable portion of the season especially when you’ve started near .500 in a division that isn’t expected to have some behemoth team.
But, like Mooney digs into, the chants of “it’s early, it’s early” miss a few huge things if you don’t accompany them with the context that makes bigger conclusions “early” in the season much more reasonable. For example: (1) the problems plaguing this Cubs team in the early going are so very familiar to things we’ve seen from this offensive core for literal years; (2) this high-variance team was constructed on the relative cheap, knowing that it was going to need some fortunate bounces to compete; and (3) this year’s Cubs aren’t actually going to get the full 162 games to show up.
The first two there are pretty self-explanatory, and I’m pretty sure you’re already well aware of the third, too. But that’s where I want to linger for a moment this morning, ruminating on two ugly, non-competitive losses to a bad Pirates team.
With a team full of walk-year guys, a need to keep stocking the farm system, no extensions signed, and a roster that was necessarily going to transition in large part after this season anyway, there can be no question that a sell-off looms if the Cubs aren’t looking VERY competitive by midseason. Moreover, since a successful sell-off has to be orchestrated by planning and conversations that long precede its execution, I would argue the Cubs might have to start making big picture decisions and laying the groundwork as early as mid-June. When the Cubs were obvious sellers at the start of the rebuild, they made sell trades as early as the first week of July, so you know those talks were coming together even earlier if they wanted to start to create a market.
That would leave just two months from right now for the team to have enough success to justify holding onto pieces for the following six weeks to see where things stood right there at the July 31 deadline (to then decide whether to hastily sell, or supplement the roster on the buy side). That is to say, you don’t have to ABSOLUTELY KNOW your path in mid-June, but for a team like this year’s Cubs, where it was always going to skew toward selling if things didn’t look great, the best version of a sell-off is going to be one that has a little time to plan and discuss, and then several weeks or a month to actually execute (so that you aren’t just flooding the market with your many rentals all at the same time, leaving your own pieces to compete with each other in the minds of would-be buyers). There’s a reason the Cubs’ rebuild-era sell-offs were (1) spread out over nearly a month, and (2) were generally very successful. There’s a method to it.
So, then, if we called mid-June that first benchmark by which the situation is going to be evaluated, then the Cubs are more like 14% through this part of the schedule, and very little we’ve learned so far would suggest it’s a “hold onto everyone and max out!” type group.
And yet! Even within that chunk of time, hey, it is still early. One hot streak, and suddenly the Cubs are leading the NL Central, and it becomes a heckuva lot harder, narratively, to talk about an early start to a sell-off. So that’s why I’m not saying that’s what is coming. It’s way too early for those declarations, much less an evaluation of what is the right path.
But it will come more quickly than it would come in a normal year, and it comes against the backdrop of a roster that has long been in need of fundamental change. For now, “it’s early” still works on me. If the next few weeks look like the first couple, it’s going to be a much tougher sell. No pun intended.