Theo Epstein doesn’t know if the Cubs will make a splash at the trade deadline. But at least July 31 won’t be about James Russell sending Jeff Samardzija off with a cigarette and a beer and Jason Hammel’s pregnant wife bursting into tears.
The Cubs sold high with last summer’s Fourth of July blockbuster trade, getting two first-round picks from the Oakland A’s (Addison Russell and Billy McKinney) and hoping they wouldn’t have to do that type of deal again.
The Cubs are looking to buy in Year 4 of the Epstein administration. The president of baseball operations promised to make difficult decisions with emotional detachment and the big picture in mind, methodically building The Foundation for Sustained Success.
So how much of the future are the Cubs willing to sacrifice now?
The Cubs are 47-40 at the All-Star break, which is good enough to hold a one-game lead over the New York Mets for the National League’s second wild card. Baseball Prospectus (69 percent) and FanGraphs (64.3 percent) give them a good chance to make the playoffs.
Those computer simulations also see the Cubs as buried behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, giving them almost no chance to win the division (6.2 percent to 4.8 percent), which could mean a one-and-done playoff game on the road.
“Teams do consider the differences between wild-card contention and winning the division,” Epstein said. “It’s a significant difference. But at the same time, you have to look at where you are. For us, any type of postseason play – or the opportunity to go win in the postseason – is a significant step and would mean a lot to us for a lot of different reasons.
“So I don’t think you take anything lightly – or discount the importance of that postseason berth – just because it may look like the wild card now.”
Also remember that last year’s two World Series teams – the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals – got into the tournament as wild cards.
So if the Cubs want to build off this momentum and expose their young players to October pressure – not to mention keep the turnstiles moving at Wrigley Field and dress up the product for the next rounds of TV negotiations – a three-month rental player could still be a fit.
“It depends on the acquisition cost,” Epstein said. “It’s always about who you’re getting, what kind of impact they make, and then the acquisition cost. It’s easy to make deals. But it’s hard to make deals that make sense.”
It’s harder to make deals if you have less than $5 million to play with and need an established starting pitcher and could use a veteran outfielder and another power arm for the bullpen.
“I do think we have some flexibility,” Epstein said. “We didn’t spend all the money – we built in a little bit of a cushion for in-season moves.”
If that hasn’t eliminated someone like Cole Hamels from consideration, then let’s look at a farm system that so far hasn’t been mortgaged in a win-now trade.
If Russell, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are (understandably) off the table now that they have become a big-league second baseman, an All-Star third baseman and a Futures Game MVP, do the Cubs even have a blue-chip prospect to entice a team like the Philadelphia Phillies?
Besides Schwarber (No. 6), the Cubs placed two more hitters on Baseball America’s midseason list of the industry’s top 50 prospects.
Gleyber Torres (No. 28), a shortstop out of Venezuela, is 18 years old and playing at Class-A South Bend. McKinney (No. 30), who projects as a corner outfielder, is hitting .303 with two homers and 24 RBI through 51 games at Double-A Tennessee.
As far as the surplus of middle infielders, Javier Baez (.922 OPS) hasn’t played for Triple-A Iowa since June 7 because of a fractured finger. Arismendy Alcantara can’t generate the same buzz after struggling to adjust to a super-utility role in April (2-for-26).
Carl Edwards Jr. is working out of Iowa’s bullpen now and could become a factor in the season’s second half. Pierce Johnson – who has dealt with injuries throughout his career – is 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA in six starts for Tennessee this year.
If the Cubs had any big-time prospects close to joining the rotation, you would have heard about them by now, instead of seeing Donn Roach, Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler make spot starts.
“It’s been a good year in the system,” Epstein said. “A lot of guys have performed. The system’s strong. We’ve graduated a lot of good players, but we still have a top system. Not the top system. But a top system.”
Epstein also acknowledged: “It doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what other teams think.”
Epstein is certainly aware of the way the team is covered – and can use the media to shape public perceptions – but he won’t make deals to win tomorrow’s headlines.
Star manager Joe Maddon keeps saying the Cubs can compete with anyone, and the players wear “We Are Good” T-shirts. A big trade could give the clubhouse a shot of adrenaline.
“I think it gets misstated at times and people make it a binary thing,” Epstein said. “Like: ‘The front office needs to make this trade in order to show support to the players, to reward them and recognize that they’ve done their job.’
“We have to support our players every single game of the season, and there are a lot of different ways to do that.
“We’ve taken an aggressive mindset all year, whether it’s calling up Schwarber to DH, or not worrying about Super Two (financial implications) at all with any of our prospects, or making small trades here or there.
“You can’t always land like the big fish at the trade deadline.
“If you do, great. If you don’t, it certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t support the team or the players or reward them. I think that’s sort of a false notion.”