Trying to determine whether the Chicago Cubs are contenders or pretenders may be a tricky exercise.
Before Thursday’s game against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs were playing .500 ball, with 21 wins and 21 losses.
They were 3.5 games behind the division leaders, the St. Louis Cardinals.
While the Cards are currently in front and may be viewed as the slight favorites to take the division, it could be very close all year and come down to the wire.
The Cubs, depending on what they do at the trade deadline, might have a shot at winning the division because they do have some talented players on their roster.
But it would be extremely difficult as things stand right now.
Keeping Yu Darvish, who they traded in the offseason to the San Diego Padres, would have clearly helped.
Chicago could still challenge for a playoff spot but only if a series of things go right.
Basically, Chicago has some decisions to make when the trade deadline comes.
The Cubs Have Some Decisions to Make
If they are well-positioned in the standings come late July, they probably stand pat and try to add a piece or two.
However, if they are out of the race, they could entertain the possibility of becoming sellers at the deadline, considering the fact that they have lots of useful players in the final year of their contracts.
The Cubs have discussed extensions with several of these players, but if talks go nowhere, they could theoretically flip one or two of these ballplayers in exchange of some prospects or talented young players.
Should the Cubs risk losing them for nothing in the winter? Or should they go for it this year, for one last run at the title with their current core?
The decision is complex and will depend in many variables, like potential extension talks and the club’s place in the standings.
The #Cubs direction at the @MLB Trade Deadline — i.e., whether Bryant, Rizzo, and Baez are dealt — is said to be heavily influenced by their play this month. Well, they are 9-5 in May with a +16 run differential. Those deals aren't imminent after all. @MLBNetwork
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) May 18, 2021
For now, all of the previously mentioned players are having good seasons and are, with the help of catcher Willson Contreras, carrying the team’s offense.
Bryant had some injury issues in 2020, but has had a rebound year so far, hitting .308/.401/.615 with 10 home runs.
Baez has had his typical line: .263/.299/.526 with ten round-trippers and six stolen bases, while Rizzo has been, as usual, an asset getting on base with a .361 OBP.
The Pitching Has Been Bad
The pitching has been kind of letdown so far, with a 4.25 ERA.
That number is the 19th ranked in MLB among 30 teams.
Hendricks in particular has been extremely inconsistent, with a 5.27 ERA.
— Baseball Prospectus (@baseballpro) May 18, 2021
In conclusion, the Cubs need rotation help to be contenders in 2021, and they are extremely unlikely to seek it given the current state of the franchise and its place on the competitive cycle.
The short answer seems to be they are more pretenders than contenders.