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2018 MLB Trade Deadline: Are the Chicago Cubs going to be buyers or sellers?

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The Cubs will definitely be buyers, but they may not have the trade chips necessary to make any major moves.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach July 31, we will preview what each team is projected to do in advance of the non-waiver trade deadline. Make sure you come back and check out our preview of each team’s deadline plans, but for now we’ll take a look at what the Chicago Cubs plan to do:

Chicago Cubs: 41-29, 2nd in the NL Central

With an expensive rotation and arguably the most impressive collection of position players under 30 since the advent of free agency, the Cubs are in clear win-now mode. They’re making an aggressive push for their fourth straight postseason appearance and third straight NL Central title, and they’re definitely not going to be “sellers.” With that said, it’s debatable how much buying they’ll be able to do. They’ve decimated their farm system quite a bit by making mid-season deals for Aroldis Chapman, Jose Quintana, Justin Wilson, and Alex Avila over the past two years, and now they don’t have a single prospect that ranks among MLB Pipeline’s Top 100. Unless they’re going to shake up their big-league roster — which would be odd since they might be the best cohesive unit in the National League right now — their deadline additions will probably have to be supplemental pieces, if anything.

What moves have they made so far?

The Cubs have been unusually quiet from a transaction standpoint so far this season; while president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and company used to take advantage of the waiver wire quite a bit, they haven’t really done so this year — perhaps that’s a product of so many of their own draft selections and international free-agent signings finding success and now taking up 40-man roster spots for the long term. Other than challenging the Dodgers to a game of waiver-wire hot potato with reliever Cory Mazzoni at the end of spring training — the 28-year-old righty went from the Cubs to the Dodgers back to the Cubs within a three-day period — Chicago hasn’t added anyone via waivers this season. The Cubs also haven’t made any trades or significant free-agent signings since the regular season began.

Who could they acquire?

Without question, the player who has been talked about most as a potential trade candidate for the Cubs is Orioles shortstop Manny Machado. First things first, it’d be nearly impossible for Chicago to pull off that type of deal without giving up multiple talented players off the major-league roster — they’ve just weakened their farm system too much over the past couple years for a package of prospects alone to compete with other teams’ offers.

Secondly, it’s debatable how much of an upgrade a Machado trade would really provide at this point. Incumbent shortstop Addison Russell, who Machado would presumably replace, ranks first among qualifying MLB shortstops with 11 defensive runs saved, while Machado ranks dead-last at -15. The Cubs could install Machado at his former position of third base and move Kris Bryant to a corner-outfield spot, but it’s difficult to see how that makes the team demonstrably better. Machado has posted a spectacular .305/.373/.559 slash line this season and would team with Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to form a trio of imposing elite hitters, but with the Cubs getting production all throughout the lineup (every position except pitcher has posted at least a .728 OPS), there’s really not a huge need to add another bat. Particularly when you consider that the Cubs would probably have to get rid of several intriguing young players — Javier Baez, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., and Victor Caratini would presumably be among the possibilities — to acquire Machado, it seems like a fun conversation starter, but probably not something Chicago should actually consider too heavily.

They’ve traded for veteran bench players during each of their last three playoff runs — Austin Jackson in 2015, Chris Coghlan in 2016, and Avila and Leonys Martin last year — so there’s a decent chance they’ll try to acquire that type of bit contributor again this summer, though their bench has been more stable this year than it has in the past as guys like Tommy La Stella and Ian Happ have become full-time big-leaguers. Players like Derek Dietrich and Danny Valencia could fit the mold of what they’re looking for in a bench addition.

The Cubs’ rotation depth is already pretty good, even with Yu Darvish dealing with inconsistency and injuries. It’d be surprising if they went after a starter unless it was a swingman type — a pitcher who Joe Maddon could utilize similarly to the way he used Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard in 2015 — though with the lack of appealing second-tier starters on the market, it’s difficult to pinpoint who that guy might be. Texas’ Jesse Chavez, a former starter who has been in the bullpen all year, would be an interesting add.

The Cubs’ bullpen has been great this year, and they’ve got plenty of relief depth — guys like Cory Mazzoni, Justin Hancock, Anthony Bass, and Rob Zastryzny have posted very good numbers when pressed into fill-in duty. With that said, it’s likely that they’ll try to acquire a good reliever at the deadline, simply because every contender seems to do so.

Yes, the Cubs displaced a guy who was at the time one of the league’s best closers in Hector Rondon so they could slot Aroldis Chapman into the ninth-inning role in 2016. But this year, there aren’t any closers that are really in the same echelon as Chapman on the market — even if there were, it’s unlikely that the Cubs would have enough quality trade chips to acquire them anyway — and in all honesty, the sense of urgency isn’t as high as it was in 2016, when Chicago was absolutely going all-in to try to snap out of a 108-year World Series drought. Brad Brach, Jake Diekman, Jared Hughes, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Tony Barnette, or Chaz Roe are all interesting options who probably wouldn’t cost a ton but could add some certainty to the middle innings.

Predictions

As the Cubs stumbled through the first half last season, it would’ve been easier to see them shaking up their youthful core. This year, though, it feels like they’re rolling on all cylinders. With the offseason departure of Jon Jay and the reduction of Ben Zobrist’s role, it no longer feels like there are too many starting-caliber players fighting for a finite amount of playing time, and thus it seems unlikely that they’ll trade a position player off the major-league roster. Likewise, there’s really no need to add a position player unless it’s a guy who ends up filling the last spot on the bench.

In all honesty, while he was somewhat of a question mark entering the season, Brandon Morrow has been good enough that Chicago probably doesn’t need to go out and get a more proven closer like Zach Britton, Brad Hand, or Jeurys Familia. A veteran reliever who is comfortable sliding into a middle-relief or setup role would be ideal and sufficient for the Cubs’ needs.