Cubs

Cubs: Can Theo Epstein land a big fish at the trade deadline?

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Cubs: Can Theo Epstein land a big fish at the trade deadline?

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.”

[MORE: Bryant, Rizzo take their All-Star experiences in stride]

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.”

[MORE: Home Run Derby an 'emotional roller coaster' for Bryant family]

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.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Sitting down with new Cubs coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey

Spring training baseball games are up around the bend, but before the boys of summer get into organized action, two of the team’s new coaches Chili Davis and Jim Hickey sit down with Kelly Crull.

Plus, Vinnie Duber joins Kelly to discuss these baseball conversations including the memorable first words of Kyle Schwarber to Chili Davis, “I don’t suck!"

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”