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Cubs not feeling the pressure of ticking clock on trade market

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Cubs not feeling the pressure of ticking clock on trade market

The Major League Baseball trade deadline is a week away and as of Friday afternoon, the Cubs haven't made any moves just yet.

That's something of a change of pace, considering the major trades Theo Epstein's front office has pulled off around the Fourth of July the last two years - sending Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A's for Addison Russell last season and trading Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles for Jake Arreita and Pedro Strop in 2013.

But then again, the Cubs are in a completely different position now as buyers instead of sellers.

"We're actively trying to make our team better," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "We're obviously on the phone non-stop, trying to be in communication with everyone.

"It's too early to say definitively, but we wouldn't be making this many calls and working as hard as we are if we weren't trying to make things happen before the deadline."

There's been a lot of talk about how much financial flexibility the Cubs have and whether or not they're able to take on big contracts along the lines of Philadelphia Phillies pitchers Cole Hamels or Jonathan Papelbon.

[RELATED - Source: Cubs chasing Cole Hamels; David Price not in play yet]

Hoyer attempted to put that worry to bed Friday before the Cubs began their three-game series with the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

"Right now, our focus is trying to find the best fit for us," Hoyer said. "I think we have confidence that if there were something that makes sense, we'd be able to figure it out financially."

The Cubs have to balance the fact that they began play Friday 9.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central and three games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates in the division and in the battle for the first NL wild card spot.

Barring a serious hot streak from the Cubs or a collapse from both the Cardinals and the Pirates, it will be hard for Joe Maddon and Co. to claim the division crown this year. So their only chance of playing deep into October may be that one-game playoff against the Pirates or San Francisco Giants or some other team.

So don't look for the Cubs to give up any big-time prospects for a guy that will become a free agent at the end of the season. Hamels makes sense given that he's under control through the 2018 season, though he's still owed roughly $100 million on his current deal.

[MORE - Cubs waiting to see what message front office sends at trade deadline]

"You're never going to do anything that's going to be detrimental to the future of the franchise," Hoyer said. "You can't force yourself into a position.

"A lot of teams have had very good runs in the second half when they didn't make significant moves. There's also a lot of deals to be made in August, which I think the Pirates have shown the last couple of years.

"Listen, we're working hard and I'm hopeful that we will find a good fit."

Hoyer pointed to the Houston Astros trading for Scott Kazmir Thursday and said he believes that could jumpstart an otherwise quiet market. But the Cubs GM also reminded everybody that no matter when the market really takes off, most of the deals don't happen until July 30th and 31st, when teams are up against the deadline and are "forced into action."

The Cubs are still looking for more arms to add depth to their pitching staff, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. There are several big-name starting pitchers on the block, but the Cubs need at least somebody who can slot into the No. 5 spot in the rotation and provide stability. They would also like to add another veteran bat, though Kyle Schwarber's arrival has helped revive a sleepy offense of late.

"We can certainly have more pitchers on the big-league roster and we can have more pitchers in the minor leagues and add depth," Hoyer said. "With a third of the season to go, trying to get through that stretch is really important.

"We could have injuries across the way, we could have poor performances and you're going to have to make sure you're able to handle that."

With the addition of the second wild card, more teams believe they're closer to a playoff spot, so there aren't as many organizations as in the past looking to sell off right now. But there are also teams that can jump into the mix in the last minute.

The Cardinals (reliever Steve Cishek) and Pirates (veteran slugger Aramis Ramirez) have already made minor moves to bolster their roster for the stretch run. But Hoyer insists the Cubs front office isn't feeling pressure to pull the trigger.

"Ultimately, you have to make deals that make sense for our team," Hoyer said. "I think the minute you start reacting to your competition, whether it's in December or July, it's always a bad idea.

"You gotta have your plan, you gotta stick to it. There's no question. Hopefully every contender is gonna better themselves at some point in July or August and you can't react to that."

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

What it comes down to is finding any way into the postseason. Even the one-game playoff is better than cleaning out lockers after the final day of the regular season. The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals proved that by winning that wild card game last year and making it all the way to the World Series.

"I think the thought process is the only way to win the World Series is to play in October," Hoyer said. "That's our mindset. Obviously there's a lot of games between us and the couple teams above us [in the NL Central]. Can we chase those teams down? Yeah, we can play exceptionally well.

"But ultimately, the Giants and the Royals showed that you have to get into the tournament in order to win and that's the way our focus is."

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist knows reality of Cubs' crowded lineup: 'There are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench'

MESA, Ariz. — Ben Zobrist has long been known for his versatility on the field. But it might take a new kind of versatility to get through what’s facing him for the 2018 season, being versatile when it comes to simply being on the field.

Zobrist was among several notable Cubs hitters who had a rough go of things at the plate in the follow-up campaign to 2016’s World Series run. He dealt with injuries, including a particularly bothersome one to his wrist, and finished with a career-worst .232/.318/.375 slash line.

And so, with younger guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. forcing their way into Joe Maddon’s lineup, it’s a perfectly valid question to ask: Has the 36-year-old Zobrist — just 15 months removed from being named the World Series MVP — been relegated to part-time status for this championship-contending club?

Obviously that remains to be seen. Joe Maddon has a way of mixing and matching players so often that it makes it seem like this team has at least 12 different “starting” position players. But Zobrist, ever the picture of versatility, seems ready for whatever is coming his way.

“I’m prepared for that, if that’s what it comes to. I told him, whatever they need me to do,” Zobrist said Sunday, asked if he’d be OK with being in a platoon situation. “You’ll see me at some different positions. As far as at-bats, though, I’ve got to be healthy. That was the biggest thing last year that kept me from getting at-bats and being productive. So if I can be healthy, I think I can play the way that I’m capable of, and the discussion then at that point will be, ‘How much can you play before we push you too far?’

“We’ve got a lot of great players, and there are going to be good players that have to sit on the bench on our team at times. But no one ever rusts because you know how Joe uses everybody. You’re still going to play. Even if you don’t start, you’re probably going to play later in the game. It’s just part of the National League and the way Joe Maddon manages.”

It’s no secret, of course, that when Zobrist is on, he’s the kind of player you want in the lineup as much as possible. It was just two seasons ago that he posted a .386 on-base percentage, banged out 31 doubles, smacked 18 home runs and was a starter for the team that won the World Series.

But he also admitted that last year’s injury fights were extremely tough: “Last year was one of the most difficult seasons I’ve ever had as a player.” Zobrist said that while he’s feeling good and ready to go in 2018, with his recent physical ailments and his advancing age, he’s in a different stage in his career.

“At this point in my career, I’m not going to play 158 games or whatever. I’m going to have to manage and figure out how to play great for 130,” he said. “And I think that would be a good thing to shoot for, if I was healthy, is playing 130 games of nine innings would be great. And then you’re talking about postseason, too, when you add the games on top of that, and well, you need to play for the team in the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for that, too.

“From my standpoint, from their standpoint, it’s about managing, managing my performance and my physical body and making sure I can do all that at the highest level, keep it at the highest level I can.”

Maddon’s managerial style means that Zobrist, even if he’s not technically a part of the everyday starting eight, will still get the opportunity to hit on a regular basis, get a chance to play on a regular basis. Baez figures to be locked in as the team’s No. 1 second baseman, but he’ll need days off. Maddon mentioned Sunday that Zobrist, along with Happ, have been practicing at first base in an effort to be able to spell Anthony Rizzo. It’s the crowded outfield where Zobrist could potentially see the most time. He’ll be a piece of that tricky daily puzzle along with Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and the aforementioned Almora and Happ.

Unsurprisingly, in the end that versatility, combined with how Zobrist has recovered physically and whether he can get back to how he’s produced in the past, will determine how much he will play, according to the guy writing out the lineups.

“I think he’s going to dictate that to us based on how he feels,” Maddon said. “Listen, you’re always better off when Ben Zobrist is in your lineup. He’s a little bit older than he had been, obviously, like we all are. I’ve got to be mindful of that, but he’s in great shape. Let’s just see what it looks like. Go out there and play, and we’ll try to figure it out as the season begins to unwind because who knows, he might have an epiphany and turn back the clock a little bit, he looks that good. I want to keep an open mind.

“I want to make sure that he understands we’re going to need him to play a variety of different positions. He’s ready to do it, he’s eager, he’s really ready. He was not pleased with his year last year, took time to reflect upon it and now he’s really been refreshed. So I think you’re going to see the best form of Ben Zobrist right now.”

Two years ago, Zobrist played a big enough role to go to the All-Star Game and get named the MVP of the World Series. In the present, that role might be much, much smaller. But Zobrist said he’s OK with anything, admitting it’s about the number of rings on the fingers and not the number of days in the starting lineup.

“I’m 36 as a player, so I’m just trying to win championships at this point. It’s not really about what I’m trying to accomplish as an individual,” Zobrist said. “Everybody wants to have great seasons, but I’ve told (Maddon), ‘Wherever you need me, I’m ready.’ Just going to prepare to fill the spots that need to be filled and be a great complement to what’s going on.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”