Cubs

Theo Epstein reveals how close Cubs came to being trade-deadline sellers

Theo Epstein reveals how close Cubs came to being trade-deadline sellers

Feeling frustrated with an underachieving team, boxed in by the labor deal and like he was running out of buttons to push, Theo Epstein nearly pressed the one that would have blown up the 2017 Cubs.

The defending World Series champs came dangerously close to becoming trade-deadline sellers and trying to shop upcoming free agents like All-Star closer Wade Davis and Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.    

“If we had fallen eight, nine out, we would have certainly been looking at considering moving some of the players who were rentals,” Epstein revealed Tuesday at Wrigley Field. “But we immediately played great out of the stretch and didn’t have to head down that road, which you honestly never want to go down.”

It’s easy to gloss over now that the Cubs ramped up and welcomed the new additions – lefty reliever Justin Wilson and veteran catcher Alex Avila – into their clubhouse for a six-game homestand against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals.  

But there were only so many times the Cubs could demote Kyle Schwarber to the minors, cut ties with Miguel Montero, reshuffle the batting order or send messages through the media before Epstein would have to weigh punting on this season.

Epstein’s front office did its part during the All-Star break, engineering a blockbuster trade with the White Sox for Jose Quintana that was more about solidifying the 2018, 2019 and 2020 rotations than trying to save the 2017 season.

Quintana showed up in the visiting clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 14 and introduced himself to a 43-45 team that trailed the Milwaukee Brewers by 5.5 games. Imagine the psychological damage if the Cubs had completely wasted the eight-run lead that night in Baltimore before Addison Russell’s game-winning homer in the ninth inning – or if the Brewers had closed the Quintana deal they discussed extensively with the White Sox and stayed hot throughout July.

“With the new CBA the way it is,” Epstein said, referring to the restrictions on spending internationally, luxury-tax implications and a modified qualifying-offer system, “contending teams, when they have an off year, have to take a hard look at selling in a given year, because it’s important to recoup young talent whenever you have an opportunity to do so.

“You never want to be in that situation, but it forces you to be realistic if you are.”

Between the Quintana boost, several key players getting healthy, a chance to recharge and talent rising to its level, the Cubs swept the Orioles and Atlanta Braves on the road and roared out of the All-Star break with a 13-3 surge that left no doubt about what to do before the July 31 trade deadline. 

That leaves August for waiver deals and a narrow window to reframe potential postseason rosters. But Epstein didn’t sound all that interested after sending right-hander Justin Grimm and catcher Victor Caratini to Triple-A Iowa as the corresponding moves to the Wilson/Avila trade with the Detroit Tigers, because this is a first-place team in the National League Central again.

“It’s always possible,” Epstein said. “But right now, we have a pretty cramped 25-man roster. We had to option two good players to make room for the acquisitions. Justin Grimm is a major-league reliever – and a good one – and Victor Caratini showed great in his first exposure to the big leagues.

“For the right player, we’ll get creative. But we really like our 25-man roster now.”

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

"NOT IN OUR HOUSE!" a Cubs coach yelled as he walked through the media throng awaiting entry into the clubhouse.

There was Kyle Schwarber standing at his locker, emphatically saying, "we're not gonna go down quietly."

There was Jake Arrieta, already making plans for what he would do to celebrate after the Cubs beat the Dodgers in the NLCS.

What a difference a day makes.

The Cubs looked completely beat and worn down after Game 3 Tuesday night. Kris Bryant echoed the same line — "why not us?" — he delivered last fall when the Cubs were down three games to one in the World Series, but this time, it just didn't feel the same.

Bryant looked shellshocked and admitted the team was drained after the NLDS and traveling across country to get steamrolled by the Dodgers in the first two games of the NLCS.

Wednesday night, things were different.

Even though the offense still hasn't broken out. 

Even though all the Cubs' runs still came off early homers — they have yet to score in this series not off a longball.

Even though Wade Davis is unavailable for Game 5 Thursday — the Cubs haven't won a game this postseason in which Davis did not pitch.

Even though the best pitcher on the planet — Clayton Kershaw — awaited the Cubs Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

The belief was back in the home clubhouse at Wrigley, even if it was just for one day.

But was it just for one day? 

I've been saying it all fall — the only time this Cubs team has played up to their potential is when they've had their backs against the wall. Your back couldn't possibly get more against the wall when down 0-3 in the NLCS, a deficit only one team in baseball history has come back from.

Conceivably, yes, the Cubs can pull this off. They can climb all the way out of this hole and make a second straight World Series.

If any team can do it, it's the group that erased the longest championship drought in American sports history and did it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

Will the Cubs be able to pull it off? 

I have no idea, honestly. I know that's a cop-out, but screw predictions at this point of the postseason. 

There's a very real possibility the Cubs offense finally breaks out and takes one more step toward writing this team's entry into the baseball history books.

There's also a very real possibility Kershaw comes out and slams the door on any talk of Cubs magic and finally pitches his way into the World Series for the first time.

Either way, the build-up to Thurday night around Wrigleyville is gonna be fun as hell.

Here's how the Cubs will line up as they try to take down Kershaw:

1. Albert Almora Jr. - CF
2. Kyle Schwarber - LF
3. Kris Bryant - 3B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Willson Contreras - C
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Javy Baez - 2B
8. Ben Zobrist - RF
9. Jose Quintana - P

It's interesting to see Zobrist so low in the lineup. He's never hit eighth in a Cubs uniform and his last start in that spot in the order came in 2010 with Joe Maddon on the Tampa Bay Rays.

A huge reason for Zobrist's spot so low in Thursday's game is because he hit just .179 with a .553 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2017 as he dealt through a wrist injury and other ailments that made hitting right-handed difficult.

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

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USA TODAY

In another huge playoff moment, Wade Davis stays cool while everything else around Cubs goes crazy

This became a three-ring circus on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Maddon screaming at the umpires, the video board showing the replay of Curtis Granderson’s swing and the crowd of 42,195 booing and chanting “BULLS#$!!”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in command of this National League Championship Series, but the Cubs won’t go quietly into the offseason, unleashing All-Star closer Wade Davis for the final two innings of a 3-2 thriller that kept them alive for at least another night.

The Cubs can worry about the daunting task of winning three more elimination games in the morning. Once Davis forced Cody Bellinger into the double-play groundball that left Justin Turner stranded in the on-deck circle and this one ended at 11:16 p.m., he pulled at his right sleeve and buttoned the top of his jersey while waiting for the Cubs to start the high-five line. “Go Cubs Go” blasted from the stadium’s sound  system and fireworks erupted beyond the center-field scoreboard and Davis acted as if nothing had happened.

To put the idea of beating the Dodgers three times in a row in perspective, the Cubs blasted three homers and got a classic big-game performance out of Jake Arrieta and still needed Davis for a heart-stopping, high-wire act.

Maddon already ruled out Davis for Thursday night’s Game 5 after the closer fired 48 pitches – or four more than he did during last week’s seven-out save that eliminated the Washington Nationals. But at least the Cubs will have those decisions to make instead of cleaning out their lockers.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “We’ll definitely come in tomorrow and get some treatment and go out and play catch and see how I feel.”

It looks like Davis doesn’t feel anything on the mound. Davis didn’t react to Turner chucking his bat and yelling into the visiting dugout after crushing a 94-mph fastball for a home run to begin the eighth inning. Davis didn’t seem bothered by Yasiel Puig flipping his bat after drawing a walk. And Davis never lost his composure while Maddon got ejected for the second time in four NLCS games.

Maddon flipped out at home plate umpire Jim Wolf – and really the entire crew – when what was initially called a swinging strike three on Granderson got overturned and ruled a foul tip.

“Wade doesn’t care about any of that,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s the right guy to have on the mound. With the mentality he has, he’s going to strike the guy out on the next pitch. Obviously with the replay, it’s not easy to keep your composure. But he’s just different. He’s a different animal.”

While the fans at Wrigley Field got loud and turned angry, Davis chatted with catcher Willson Contreras: “I was just trying to think of the next pitch I was going to throw if he ended up staying in the box.”

Davis got Granderson (0-for-4, four strikeouts) swinging at strike four, walked Yasmani Grandal and then blew away Chase Utley with a 95.1-mph fastball, needing 34 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Davis wasn’t finished, using a Kris Bryant bat to hit against Dodger lefty Tony Cingrani, fouling off five pitches before striking out looking at a 94.9-mph fastball.

“Yeah, I gave up there after a little bit,” Davis said with a look that sort of resembled a smile. “He was bringing it pretty good, and I hadn’t seen a baseball in a while coming in like that.”

If the Cubs are going to match the 2004 Boston Red Sox – the only other team to come back from an 0-3 deficit since the LCS format expanded to seven games in 1985 – they are going to need the offense to generate more runs, a great start from Jose Quintana on Thursday night and someone else to run out of the bullpen. Not that Davis is ruling himself out for Game 5.

“Go get some sleep and then come in tomorrow and start getting ready,” Davis said.