The ball has been in Chase Utley’s court, trying to come up with an exit strategy from the Philadelphia Phillies.
It’s up to Utley to leverage his no-trade rights and decide what he wants to do the rest of this season, whether that’s staying in the City of Brotherly Love, trying to make history in a Cubs uniform or going back to his West Coast roots with the Los Angeles Angels or San Francisco Giants.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees have also been floated as possible destinations for the six-time All-Star second baseman. Utley is said to be making playing time the No. 1 priority in his calculus, the chance to showcase his skills and get another contract for next season.
Sure, Utley could help this team, but ultimately the Cubs are going to win or lose with the young hitters they’ve collected through Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration.
“These are our guys,” Epstein said at least four times while meeting with beat writers after a July 31 trade deadline where the Cubs focused on smaller deals for pitching.
Their guys had no chance against Chris Sale on Sunday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field, something Miguel Montero admitted on Twitter after a 3-1 loss to the White Sox that snapped a nine-game winning streak.
“It’s ok we have to lose sometime,” Montero tweeted. “#WeAreGood.”
Montero said Sale is from another planet. The 6-foot-6, 180-pound lefty who creates all those crazy angles took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before Dexter Fowler knocked a single into left field.
There are going to be days like this. Sale finished with 15 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings. The Cubs struck out 18 times for the third time this season.
Dan Haren — the No. 5 starter the Cubs acquired from the Miami Marlins at the trade deadline — got pulled in the fifth inning after giving up solo home runs to Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez and Melky Cabrera that combined traveled 1,073 feet.
“We’ve been open from the beginning that we’re going with young players at the big-league level,” Epstein said on July 31. “When you go with young position players, it comes with a lot of excitement. Sometimes it comes with some frustration and then oftentimes excitement again. You have to let your players work their way through slumps and see what it brings you.”
It brought the Cubs within 2 1/2 games of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the chance to host a playoff game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs have gone 15-2 in their last 17 games, building a 3 1/2-game lead over the Giants for the second wild-card spot.
Epstein said the Cubs didn’t want to add “just any bat” on July 31. Utley has cleared waivers and gone 13-for-26 in seven games since recovering from an ankle injury and coming off the disabled list.
But Utley might not see the clearest path to playing time here with manager Joe Maddon valuing Chris Coghlan’s offense (13 homers, .758 OPS) and versatility while trying to not destroy Starlin Castro’s confidence after three All-Star selections.
“(The front-office guys are) absolutely out there trying to make us better,” Maddon said. “They’ll ask me what I think. I don’t necessarily want to come out and say we need things. More often than not, the overarching philosophy is what they’re thinking about and then they’ll say: ‘Well, what do you think about this?’
“I kind of like that approach. Because I’m so focused on what we’re doing here right now. I mean that sincerely. I rely on their abilities to make good decisions. It’s up to me to give my opinion when I’m asked.”
Beyond the chemistry issues, Utley is 36 years old and owed around $4 million for the rest of this season, plus a $2 million buyout of his 2016 option (which kicks in at 500 plate appearances but looks like a non-starter now).
With or without Utley, the Cubs are betting on their young hitters for the rest of this season and beyond.
“You got to give these guys a chance to play,” Epstein said, “a chance to learn, a chance to work their way out of slumps and a chance to win for you. These are our guys. We believe in them.”