With the Phillies in town, Cubs see what paying for star talent can do

CHICAGO — It must be hard for Chicago Cubs fans to watch the Philadelphia Phillies come to town. Kyle Schwarber was once loved by the Wrigley faithful. Known for his mammoth home runs, Schwarber has reached his potential, both as a player on the field and leader in the clubhouse, with the Phillies.

Then there’s the $330 million man the Phillies signed five years ago, Bryce Harper, who has already won one MVP in Philadelphia and is in contention for another this season. Cubs fans surely dreamed of seeing both in a lineup helping lead a potent offense. At least neither could hurt the Cubs this week as each is on the shelf with injuries. Instead, it was another player Cubs fans likely dreamed of acquiring who did much of the damage.

One of the headliners of the big free-agent shortstop class from two winters ago, Trea Turner, ripped a pair of home runs in a three-hit, four-RBI performance on Monday night as the Phillies topped the Cubs 6-4, helping them continue their descent to the depths of the NL.

The Cubs offense, like it has been for much of the season, was a no-show for much of the game. They put some good at-bats together in the first. Cody Bellinger doubled in a run in the third, then they went hitless from the fourth through the eighth innings. A rally in the ninth when the Phillies decided to hold off on bringing in their best reliever, Jeff Hoffman, allowed the score to look close. But once Hoffman came in, the Cubs went down meekly. This game was just one more reminder to everyone that the Cubs, now a season-low eight games under .500, are a last-place team.

“There was nothing happening in essentially the first eight innings,” manager Craig Counsell said. “We had a good first inning and Cody’s double got us a run in the third. But four through eight was nothing. Obviously had a good ninth inning, but not enough.”

Turner was likely never going to be a Cub. He preferred the East Coast and that contract entered a stratosphere Jed Hoyer hasn’t shown to be comfortable with. Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations for the Phillies, operates on a different wavelength than Hoyer with an owner who isn’t as concerned about tightening the purse strings at the first sign of discomfort.

The Phillies paid Harper what was needed to seal the deal and did the same for Turner, giving him an 11-year, $300 million deal. Hoyer went with defensive consistency and what he hoped was a still solid, if a less impressive offensive profile and signed Dansby Swanson. A little over halfway through the 2024 season, Turner has a 149 wRC+. Swanson is floundering at the plate, with an 85 wRC+ after going 0-for-4 Monday night.

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Trea Turner hits one of his two home runs in a three-hit, four-RBI performance against the Cubs. (Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

The Phillies are stacked with talent. Monday marked their MLB-best 56th win of the season. They’ve built a team by spending big money, acquiring power bats and high-velocity arms — two aspects the Cubs lack. The Cubs are focused on “intelligent spending” while the Phillies are dishing out “stupid” money. Nobody would deny which product is more entertaining and which results are preferred.

Still, coming into this series, some may have felt the Cubs were catching this team at the right time. After all, they are down Schwarber, Harper and catcher J.T. Realmuto and had rookie Michael Mercado making his first big-league start. But those people probably haven’t been watching the Cubs much.

This is a team that had their destiny in their hands entering June. They faced a stretch of 25 games against teams at or below .500. The Cubs went 10-15 over that span. The way the Cubs are playing, they’re the team that others look to on their schedule and hope it will help them get out of their slump.

The Cubs came into the season expecting to build off an 83-win season. The offense that scored the sixth-most runs in the game was supposed to continue to grow as a unit. Counsell is lauded as one of the best managers in the game. Adding him should have helped around the margins. Instead, the Cubs look significantly worse than the team that fought from 10 games under .500 to nearly make the postseason last fall.

“Disappointing for sure,” Bellinger said. “We all had high expectations and I think overall we still do. Today I thought we put some good swings on the ball. Just some bad breaks it looked like. Just gotta keep on fighting.”

Bellinger and the players have to stay positive. Dwelling on the bad that’s already occurred won’t fix the situation. But this isn’t about bad luck. The offense isn’t producing at a level that’s even close to acceptable.

“We’ve gotta do more offensively,” Counsell said. “That’s one of the things we have to do. There’s no question about it. Just too many easy innings today.”

Mercado shut the Cubs offense down for five innings, allowing just one run on two hits. It was more of the same for an offense that’s done little to suggest they’re coming out of a two-month-long slump — perhaps it should no longer be called a slump. It’s just who they are as an offense until proven otherwise.

In Sunday’s 7-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, after starting the game with two of the first three batters getting hits, the Cubs finished the game going 0-for-26 with three walks. On Tuesday, after Bellinger’s RBI double in the third inning, the Cubs didn’t have another batter reach base until Michael Busch’s infield single to lead off the ninth. By that point, the game was already out of reach. Seiya Suzuki’s three-run homer was enough to get fans on their feet, but it mattered little by the end of the night.

Trying to dig out of this hole currently feels impossible. The Cubs have two more against the Phillies, a brief respite against the Los Angeles Angels over the weekend and then head into the All-Star break with seven on the road — three against a great Baltimore Orioles team and four in three days against the rival St. Louis Cardinals. That isn’t a recipe for finding a hot streak.

If anything, the team’s fate could be sealed with weeks to go before the deadline. That’s not what anyone expected coming into the season. As fans are left dreaming of what could have been, the reality is that the Cubs are approaching a worst-case scenario with little hope to stop the slide.

(Top photo of Seiya Suzuki hitting a three-run homer in the ninth inning: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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