There’s no stopping the sell-off.
At least since last September, Jeff Samardzija talked about the importance of a good start this season. The Opening Day starter answered questions about the trade deadline during spring training, understanding the front office wouldn’t hesitate to blow up the team.
But deep down, the Cubs should have known they needed a miracle, everything breaking right for them and everything going wrong for the rest of the National League Central.
There haven’t been too many nights like this, but Wednesday’s 13-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels showed it could still get real ugly. Josh Hamilton homered twice off Samardzija (nine runs in 4.2 innings), while Albert Pujols added his 28th home run in 88 career games at Wrigley Field.
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“You can’t really sugarcoat it too much,” Samardzija said afterward. “They kicked my ass today.”
Setting that aside, the Cubs (40-49) had probably been playing their best baseball all season while saying goodbye to pitcher Scott Feldman and outfielder Scott Hairston. They also know frontline starter Matt Garza and closer Kevin Gregg could be traded next.
The Cubs actually began the day with a positive run differential, something that couldn’t be said for the New York Yankees, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Remember this a team that has blown 18 saves and lost 26 games after leading.
The Pythagorean record suggests the Cubs should be at or around .500, which leads to a hypothetical question: Would the front office still be selling so fast then?
“The answer would probably be ‘yes,’” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “The challenge is that we’re so far behind the other three teams in our division. Right now, (the) Reds and the Pirates are kind of running away with the National League wild cards. So it’s still about making the postseason.
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“Finishing around .500 or over – while enjoyable – that’s not what ultimately is our goal. So if a playoff spot is at stake – that changes your perspective. If a playoff spot’s not at stake, it really doesn’t.”
Of course, actually competing at the big-league level might help fill all those empty green seats at Wrigley Field and position the Cubs for their next TV deals, fueling the economic engine for what has become a mid-market team.
Maybe it could have generated some goodwill and enthusiasm and smoothed negotiations with City Hall and the 44th Ward over the stadium renovations. It couldn’t hurt getting Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro outside of a losing environment (though those core players deserve their share of the blame this season).
Still, the Angels are a disappointing 44-46 team filled with big-money stars, again showing that winning the winter meetings doesn’t necessarily carryover to the 162-game marathon. The Cubs are sticking with their long-range plan, and that means moving Garza (0.97 ERA across his last five starts) in his walk year.
“There’s obviously a lot of incoming phone calls, a lot about Matt, but a lot of other players on the team, too,” Hoyer said. “In general (around) the game phone traffic has picked up. But I feel like there’s a lot of interest in our players.”
While the Cubs are in position to sell high on Garza, it’s not like another hot streak will fundamentally change the perception of Alfonso Soriano, who has homered eight times in his last 12 games and still has the hammer of no-trade rights.
“For the most part, the ups and downs of a player probably impact the trade deadline less than people think,” Hoyer said. “They still have a lot of scouting reports. They still have stats from before. So I think when a guy gets hot, sometimes it gets overblown how much it effects his trade value.
“The trade value might waver a hair, but I don’t think it’s going to waver too much.”
The Cubs were prepared to move Garza last July, before another elbow injury took him off the trade market. There was the bone contusion in 2011, the stress reaction in 2012 and the strained lat muscle this spring. That history could motivate the front office to act fast.
“We worry about injuries every day, regardless,” Hoyer said. “Every time I see (athletic trainer) PJ Mainville’s name on my phone, my heart skips a beat, so it doesn’t change in July. It’s the whole year.”
The final test before the All-Star break is a four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals, who come into Wrigley Field on Thursday with a 15-game lead over the Cubs. This could look like a very different team next week.
“Anything that happens, happens,” said Samardzija, who wraps up his first half at 5-9 with a 4.06 ERA. “It’s out of our control. We can just come to the park every day and get ready to play. Everyone’s going to take that approach.”