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.”

Is Joe Maddon covering for Wade Davis? Where do Cubs go from here?

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USA TODAY

Is Joe Maddon covering for Wade Davis? Where do Cubs go from here?

Is Cubs manager Joe Maddon taking the heat and covering for Wade Davis while the All-Star closer deals with atypical soreness in his right arm?

“No, no,” Maddon said Tuesday when asked if Davis felt anything unusual that lingered into the National League Championship Series after last week’s all-out effort eliminated the Washington Nationals from the divisional round.

The Los Angeles Dodgers took a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven bullpen battle without Davis throwing a single pitch, the backlash from Cubs fans, Twitter and the national media again putting Maddon on the defensive, the year after he got second-guessed for pushing Aroldis Chapman so hard during the World Series.

This NLCS truly is a bizarro world, with Maddon comparing the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax, getting so little benefit of the doubt – the Cubs really did beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 – and working the baseball term “dry-hump” into one answer during Monday’s Wrigley Field press conference.

Maddon said he would have to check first with Davis – who would have almost five full days in between relief appearances – if the Cubs need a four- or five-out save in Game 3.

“Nevertheless, I always check,” Maddon said. “I can’t just assume that.”

Maddon’s Game 2 calculus on Sunday night at Dodger Stadium – sticking with lefty reliever Brian Duensing in a 1-1 game to start the ninth inning and then bringing in John Lackey to serve up the walk-off, three-run homer to Justin Turner – made you wonder if Davis was still dragging after ending Washington’s season and traveling on the overnight cross-country flight that got diverted to New Mexico for about five hours when Jose Quintana’s wife experienced a panic attack.

“I think he just got mentally exhausted,” Maddon said. “Physically, 44 pitches, he hasn’t done that in a while. But also the seven outs and what it meant and the plane ride itself, sitting on the tarmac, there was a lot of non-rest going on right there, so it was harder to recover.

“So, no, he was fine for the last game, but we set up the parameters before the game.”

Maddon is sticking with his story, that he would only deploy Davis in a save situation and not use him for one out against Turner (1.115 career postseason OPS) or have him totally warm up without the guarantee of getting him into the game.

“To put Wade in that position would be wrong on my part,” Maddon said. “We had already talked about the circumstances, so my loyalty there lies with Wade, or my decision-making lies with Wade, nobody else.

“That was a heavy day for him (in Washington). Going into the last game in L.A., like I talked about, we talked about one inning only, and not to get up and not put him in the game.

“If you get him up and sit him down, then you have no idea what it’s going to look like. My responsibility is to him, also, and to the players, so I told him that before the game, so I had to stick with our decision.”

Before finalizing the Jorge Soler trade at the winter meetings, the Kansas City Royals took the unusual step of allowing the Cubs to meet with Davis at his home in New York’s Hudson Valley and go through a physical exam. The Cubs wanted reassurances after Davis spent parts of last season on the disabled list with a forearm strain and a flexor strain.

The Cubs wondered if “dry-humping” had contributed to those injuries, and tried to stay conservative with Davis during his free-agent year, watching him convert his first 32 save chances and using him for three-plus outs only three times during the regular season, all in mid-to-late September.

“If you look at the numbers this year, I thought going into the playoffs his usage has been really good,” Maddon said. “Minimal, in a sense. We didn’t get him up hardly at all where we didn’t utilize him.

“He just wasn’t set up for it the other day. So honestly, I think he’s in really good shape right now, actually. I don’t think he could have gone those seven outs the other day if he had been overly dried up during the course of the season. He felt good. But that was above and beyond, and that wasn’t part of the game plan the other night.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Ben Zobrist shares his leadoff approach

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Ben Zobrist shares his leadoff approach

Sports Talk Live is on location at the Brickhouse Tavern at Wrigley Field to get you set for Game 3 of the NLCS. David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Jesse Rogers (ESPNChicago.com) and Bob Nightengale (USA Today) join Kap on the panel. 

Plus, Ben Zobrist and Curtis Granderson drop by to talk about the big matchup.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: