An uncertain trade deadline status awaits the Chicago Cubs. Will they be buyers or sellers?

Tribune Content Agency

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Any hope the Chicago Cubs would start stacking wins to move closer to .500 during their West Coast trip has not gained traction.

Their 7-4 loss at Angel Stadium on Tuesday night featured a little bit of all the things, big and small, that have plagued the team en route to a 26-34 start in what was supposed to be a more competitive season.

At the 60-game mark, the 2023 iteration of the Cubs is only three wins better than their 2022 counterpart, though last year’s group was seven games into a 10-game losing streak at this point. Go back to the team’s last win before the double-digit skid — through Game 53 — and the two squads share a 23-30 record.

A challenging stretch hasn’t helped, but this roster is much more talented than last season’s with Frank Schwindel as the 2022 cleanup hitter.

The Cubs squandered a 4-0 lead in the second, mashing as usual off a left-handed starter, when a disastrous, mistake-filled and poorly executed fifth inning saw the Angels put up five runs to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

That type of play is sending the Cubs on the path toward sellers at the Aug. 1 trade deadline. President Jed Hoyer will wait as long as possible to decide, but the Cubs are reaching the point at which they need to start securing some series sweeps to put a dent in the hole they’ve created.

“I’d love to rattle off a long winning streak and feel like all these questions are not going to be asked anymore, that’d be the hope,” Hoyer said of their trade-deadline approach before Tuesday’s loss.

“Certainly we’re not going to make any decisions early. We had a really good month and a really bad month. We need to play well, and the frustrating thing is we haven’t been able to rattle off win streaks. If you’re going to get swept, like we have a few times, you’re going to have to do the same thing to opponents.

“Our focus is we need to be consistent as a team and claw our way back into the race. It’s not that far of a climb. We just need to play consistent baseball, and my hope is we do that.”

Hoyer believes the Cubs possess the starting pitching needed to produce a winning stretch they desperately need. But the continued unreliability of the bullpen threatens that. It emerged again against the Angels when left-hander Brandon Hughes and right-hander Jeremiah Estrada each failed to retire any of the four batters they faced in the fifth and seventh innings, respectively.

Hughes replaced starter Hayden Wesneski with a two-run lead and two outs in the fifth to face Shohei Ohtani, who homered the previous inning. Hughes walked Ohtani on five pitches to bring up Mike Trout. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Trout tied the game with a two-run single to center.

The Angels sent 10 to the plate en route to taking the lead in the fifth. A botched potential double-play ball by first baseman Matt Mervis four batters in for a fielding error sparked the rally.

“What didn’t go wrong in that inning, right?” manager David Ross said. ” The fifth inning was the game.”

The Cubs are fortunate the National League Central has been terrible. Even with Tuesday’s loss, the Cubs sit 6½ games back of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. The St. Louis Cardinals own the worst record in the division, while the rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds need to prove their good two months are for real. The Pirates, at plus-2, are the only Central team with a positive run differential.

If the division continues trending in that direction, it might force the Cubs to be aggressive and add before Aug. 1. Taking care of business and playing better would build a more compelling argument for Hoyer and the front office.

The Cubs have long believed internally that 2024 would be go time, with the maturation of their top prospect talent aligning with the big-league talent, creating an all-in dynamic. The organization will continue to keep a long-term focus on impending decisions should they fail to turn around the season. That creates a likely tough sell to fans.

Marcus Stroman’s looming opt-out decision complicates Hoyer’s trade-deadline decisions. Stroman is setting himself up for a robust free-agent market with a 2.39 ERA and 11 quality starts through 13 outings. Conversations between the sides before the deadline should provide some clarity on his future in Chicago.

Stroman has thrived in a Cubs uniform, especially at Wrigley Field.

“He’s been everything we hoped for when we signed him,” Hoyer said. “We enjoy having him. We’ve given him the freedom to be himself and I think he’s reciprocated that by pitching great. He’s been terrific.”

Getting center fielder Cody Bellinger back in the lineup would provide a needed boost for an offense in a funk, especially when facing right-handed starters. Bellinger (left knee) took on-field batting practice again Tuesday and is continuing his running progression. Hoyer confirmed Bellinger, who hasn’t played since suffering the injury May 15, will go on a rehab assignment either in Arizona or at an affiliate before coming off the injured list.

Right-hander Codi Heuer should give the Cubs a new leverage arm in the bullpen soon. The team extended Heuer’s rehab assignment to hone his command as he returns from Tommy John surgery. He needed only eight pitches to throw a scoreless inning Tuesday with Triple-A Iowa.

Bellinger’s and Heuer’s impending returns will help address current roster deficiencies. Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner and Dansby Swanson all signed multiyear contracts in the lead-up to opening day with belief in Hoyer’s vision and the foundation of a winning organization. That becomes murkier and could lead to tough conversations if the Cubs don’t gain clarity on their standing by Aug. 1.

“That middle ground is obviously really challenging,” Hoyer said. “I’ll mentally cross that bridge when it comes to it as far as how we play that, but in my mind, we have a good team. It’s really early — it’s June 6 — we have a long way to go. Let’s watch and see what happens.

“My hope is we look back at these questions and they were moot.”