ST. LOUIS — This isn’t fantasy baseball, and there aren’t many teams like the 2012-14 Cubs out there hanging “For Sale” signs right now.
Even if the Cubs wanted to overreact to getting swept out of Busch Stadium after Sunday night’s 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals — which finally ended at 12:05 Monday morning — they probably couldn’t. They still have to be patient after sitting through a tornado watch, two rain delays that lasted two hours and 29 minutes combined and a season-high five-game losing streak.
But the Cubs (39-35) will eventually have to do something to close the gap on their biggest rivals and keep playing meaningful games into September. Setting aside the legitimate questions about how much financial flexibility they will have, the second wild card already changed the calculus for the July 31 trade deadline.
“There’s a chance this is one of the tightest markets we’ve ever seen,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We’re going to have to be creative. A lot of teams will have to be creative, because there’s not going to be a lot of sellers. We keep on assuming that the next four or five weeks will shake some of that out, but it may not.”
It’s fun to play connect the dots with Cubs hitters and New York Mets pitchers, which will happen during the three-game series that begins Tuesday night at Citi Field.
You can wonder about which players to prioritize from the Oakland A’s — left-hander Scott Kazmir or super-utility guy Ben Zobrist? — when the Cubs don’t have a clear No. 5 starter and their lineup generated only four runs in 28 innings over the weekend, going 2-for-27 with men in scoring position against the Cardinals (51-24).
“They’ve beaten us with their experience,” manager Joe Maddon said. “They come up with the hit, we don’t. They make the pitch, we don’t.
“We’ve blinked and they haven’t. That’s what it’s really come down to.”
Go ahead and debate over Twitter the prospects you would give up in a deal. But all that won’t change the illusion of contention when only three teams entered Monday more than eight games back in the wild-card race:
The Milwaukee Brewers fired manager Ron Roenicke in early May and have sunk to 19 games under .500. But would they trade within the division and with their rivals 90 miles south?
The Miami Marlins fired manager Mike Redmond in the middle of May and just lost superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton for at least a month with a broken bone in his wrist. Good luck trying to guess what happens next on that reality show.
Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg resigned last week before the Philadelphia Phillies could fire him as part of the major shakeup that franchise desperately needs. Ex-Cubs executive Andy MacPhail is reportedly on the verge of being named Philadelphia’s new head of baseball operations.
Delusional or not, teams like the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds can try to tell themselves they’re one good week away from jumping right back into this, or one good player away from being relevant.
“You never know how that’s going to work,” Hoyer said. “Some teams might claw themselves back into the race and decide not to sell. You have to think about it creatively. You have to think about what would happen if there weren’t deals to be made, because there may not be a lot of deals out there.”
The Cubs already trail the Cardinals by 11.5 games in the National League Central. But they now have enough going for them — star manager, young blue-chip talent, veteran leadership and good clubhouse vibes — to justify the investment in the big-league team.
“It’s the same balancing act that we always go through,” Hoyer said. “This is a very important season. Every season that you’re in the race you have to take seriously, because you can’t always count on tomorrow. As much as we’re built for the future, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.
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“You don’t want to do anything that you’re going to look back on and say: That was hasty. But you never want to only look towards the future and ignore the fact that: Hey, this has been a really fun season with a lot of big positives. And can we improve some of the weaknesses we have to keep that going?”
Also remember the Cubs said things about the slow pace of deal-making at this time last year, just before shipping Jeff Samardzija to Oakland in the Fourth of July blockbuster that yielded Addison Russell. The Cubs also “jumped the market” in 2013, flipping Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles on July 2 and remaking their pitching staff with Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
“We’re going to have to wait awhile to see how this trade market shakes out,” Hoyer said. “But there’s a chance it’s an extreme sellers’ market with so few teams selling. And only the next 25, 30 games will tell whether more teams end up in that sellers’ column.”
The Cubs won’t be selling like crazy, the way they did the last three summers, but a lost weekend in St. Louis also showed that maybe we shouldn’t automatically assume they will be such big buyers this time.