CHICAGO -- The Cubs have been down this road before, heading into the second half having fallen short of expectations and putting the club's immediate direction under a microscope. It is the kind of thing that an extended period of winning after the All-Star break can solve.
"If we start playing our style of baseball," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, "a heads-up style of baseball that we play when we're at our best, then things should take care of themselves."
In the meantime, Epstein and his front office will examine what things they can do to help the situation in the weeks and days leading up to the July 31 Trade Deadline.
Epstein agreed that this season has a similar feel to 2017, when the Cubs were 43-45 and 5 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central at the break. Chicago swung the Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox on the eve of the second half and then rattled off 14 wins in 17 games. The Cubs added some pieces at the Deadline, won 49 games after the All-Star break and won the division.
"If you go on a tear and you find yourselves with a four-or five-game lead," Epstein said, "that puts you in a really aggressive posture as buyers. It doesn't work this way, but in your mind, you want to try to finish off the division if you can. [But] if you have two or three weeks of poor play, given where the division is, you might find yourself in fourth place and looking up four or five games at somebody. And then you have to be realistic about where you are.
"It's not by decree from anybody, especially from me. It's just by the nature of the standings that these next few weeks are obviously really important, for sure. Every game."
Current status: buyer
It is hard to see the Cubs shifting into sell mode, but Epstein has hinted in recent interviews that changes could be coming if the club does not right itself in the weeks leading up to the Deadline. So consider Chicago in the buyer category unless things go off the rails between the All-Star break and July 31. A division title is still very much there for the taking and Epstein said before the break that the front office is in a "proactive mindset, looking to shore up soft spots on the roster." That sure sounds like buy mode at the moment.
What they are seeking
On the pitching front, the Cubs already addressed a major need by signing free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel on June 7. Now Chicago is in the market for an impact lefty for the later innings. In the current bullpen, lefty Kyle Ryan is a ground-ball artist, but he's not a true left-on-left option. Left-hander Mike Montgomery is a swing man and offers a multi-inning option, but he is also not a traditional versus-lefties southpaw. The Cubs could really benefit from having a reliable arm to get a big lefty slugger out in a critical moment.
If the Cubs want to inject some more offense into the mix, the two best avenues are via second base or the outfield. At second, Chicago is taking a look at Robel Garcia, who slugged his way from Double-A to the Majors this season after playing the past several years overseas in Italy. He is getting time there, along with Daniel Descalso and Addison Russell, who have both struggled at the plate. In the outfield, the Cubs gave Carlos Gonzalez a shot, but he never took off. A lefty-hitting outfielder to balance the group would be ideal.
What they have to offer
Do not expect the Cubs to dangle top prospects such as shortstop Nico Hoerner, righty Adbert Alzolay or catcher Miguel Amaya in trade talks. If Chicago trades from its MLB Pipeline Top 30 prospect list, the package would probably come from the group below the very top tier. It is also possible that someone like Garcia -- while getting a look by the Cubs right now -- is a target for other teams.
Now if the Cubs were to shift into sell mode, that opens up another world of possibilities. That is when players like Cole Hamels, Brandon Kintzler, Steve Cishek or Pedro Strop might suddenly have their names pop up in trade rumors. Anyone with an expiring contract would seemingly be on the list of vulnerable players if Chicago decided to make moves with 2020 in mind.
There are a handful of arms that look intriguing in light of the Cubs' need for an impact lefty in the bullpen. The one that looks like a no-brainer for the North Siders to target is Giants lefty Will Smith. The 29-year-old has been fantastic against lefties and righties, and he is under contract for $4.23 million with free agency looming. That fits the budget and would help the Cubs to avoid shipping off their most-coveted prospects.
Given Smith's status at the moment as a rental, acquiring him would not require the kind of packages that, say, Andrew Miller or Brad Hand necessitated in recent seasons due to their multiple years of control. It would likely take a couple of prospects, but not the top-of-the-rankings players. Given that landscape, it would probably come down to the Giants' preference of prospects.