Cubs

All-in at trade deadline? Cubs looking to strengthen bullpen for October

All-in at trade deadline? Cubs looking to strengthen bullpen for October

The Cubs built double-digit leads on the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, two division rivals that won 198 games combined last season, but are now treading water in a National League filled with have-nots playing for the future.

The Cubs have a plus-171 run differential at a time when the Boston Red Sox are listed second in that category at plus-83. The Cubs have a 2.31 rotation ERA that is almost a full run lower than the second-ranked New York Mets and their vaunted starters.

The Cubs have nine players on their active roster who are 26 years old or younger - meaning all those hitting prospects can't make it to Wrigley Field — and the bullpen is an obvious area to upgrade. 

Plus — you know — the century-and-counting World Series title drought. Why not go for it at the trade deadline, acquire a game-changing reliever (or two) and leave as little as possible to chance in the playoffs? 

"I wouldn't state anything quite that aggressively," general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday before the Cubs renewed their rivalry with the Cardinals. "But there's no doubt we're going to spend the next 40 days before the deadline trying to evaluate where we are. 

"We want to address the weaknesses that we have. That's something that we talk about all the time — not only addressing the weaknesses you have — but also thinking about where those things can come up. We always talk about trying to be ahead of the next thing that can go wrong."

The New York Yankees went into spring training planning to keep Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman together — and then see where the team is at in July and if it would force the franchise's first sell-off in a generation. 

Adam Warren — the swingman acquired from New York in the Starlin Castro trade — has allowed eight of 20 inherited runners to score and seen his ERA rise to 4.56 (after giving up zero earned runs in his first eight appearances with the Cubs). 

Left-handed hitters are putting up a .924 OPS against lefty Clayton Richard (7.50 ERA). Justin Grimm (4.81 ERA) hasn't taken that step forward into being a trusted late-inning reliever yet.

Setup guy Pedro Strop has made 200-plus appearances in a Cubs uniform since coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in the Jake Arrieta trade in the middle of the 2013 season. Closer Hector Rondon is a Tommy John survivor who missed almost three seasons in the Cleveland Indians system before the Cubs grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft at the 2012 winter meetings. 

"It's something you constantly address," Hoyer said. "There are probably 30 teams in baseball right now that at some level are talking about one or two members of their bullpen. That's just kind of the nature of the way pitching is today with 12 and 13-man staffs. 

"But there's no doubt we have some guys that pitched great baseball for us last year at the end of the season that are scuffling a little bit. It's just our job to get those guys back on track. I don't think you lose faith in them, especially when you see them go out and dominate in the postseason."

Maybe Joe Nathan makes a comeback after his second Tommy John procedure and becomes a great story in October. The Cubs did catch lightning in a bottle last year with Richard (acquired midseason from Pittsburgh's Triple-A affiliate for a dollar) and Trevor Cahill (who signed a minor-league contract last August).

Maybe the Cubs don't feel like they have to pay top dollar and buy a brand-name reliever. But if you're already looking for where things could go wrong during this magical season, the bullpen would be a good place to start. 

"You have faith in those guys," Hoyer said. "It's the nature of bullpens in general — just like a lineup — (where) you rarely have everyone clicking on all cylinders. You have some guys that are usually pitching better than others. The difference in bullpens is it's a lot of high-leverage situations. (But) if one guy's struggling at the plate, it might go unnoticed.

"We'll get those guys back on track. Obviously, we're aware of it. Hopefully, we'll get those guys going sooner rather than later."

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

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USA TODAY

Cubs trade Mike Montgomery to Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado

It’s not a blockbuster move, but the Cubs have reportedly made a trade with more than two weeks until the trade deadline.

Theo Epstein confirmed previous reports after the game that the Cubs traded left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery to the Kansas City Royals for catcher Martin Maldonado. Epstein added that Willson Contreras is heading to the 10-day IL with a strain in the arch of his foot, but he didn’t expect Contreras to be out much longer than those 10 days.

Montgomery, 30, joined the Cubs in the middle of the 2016 season, but struggled this season. He had a 5.67 ERA with 18 strikeouts and 13 walks in 27 innings this season.

Maldonado, 32, was hitting .224/.288/.359 with the Royals. Maldonado can fill in at catcher with Victor Caratini while Contreras is out.

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

Jason Heyward getting back to 'who he's supposed to be' in Cubs lineup

This is the Jason Heyward the Cubs thought they were getting when they signed him to an eight-year deal in December 2015.

Back then, the Cubs believed Heyward had more power to tap into from his 6-foot-5, 240-pound, linebacker-esque frame. 

It didn't play out that way initially, with Heyward hitting only 26 homers to go along with a .367 slugging percentage and .688 OPS in his first three seasons in a Cubs uniform.

But all that has changed this year.

Heyward is on pace for 26 homers in 2019 — which would equal that three-year total — and his 71 RBI pace would be his highest since 2012, when he drove in 82 runs.

The 29-year-old hit his 15th homer of the season Sunday and it marks the first time he's eclipsed the 15-homer threshold since that same 2012 season, when he hit 27 dingers as a 22-year-old with the Atlanta Braves.

The power is the area that jumps off the page right now about the new and improved Heyward, but that carries with it a grain of salt that must be taken with everybody's longball total in the game right now. But his walk rate (11.6 percent) is the second-best mark of his career to only his rookie season in 2010. He's also pulling the ball less than he ever has and utilizing the middle of the field more while his hard and soft contact rates are far and away better than they've ever been in a Cubs uniform. 

All told, this is not the same hitter Cubs fans saw in the first three years of Heyward's megadeal.

"He's set up a little bit differently," Joe Maddon said. "Right now, his confidence is soaring. That ball was properly struck [Sunday afternoon] and he's been doing that often — even his basehits.

"... He's set up a little bit differently, but honestly, I think it's a confidence thing right now. He's feeling so good about himself. He's on the barrel more. I mean that's obvious. You don't see the ball off the weaker part of the bat nearly as often as we've seen in the past. I think that's the primary difference — the ball's off the barrel. 

"His hands are really alive. I love that the ball's still line to line, but the power is still showing up. I think that's exactly who he's supposed to be."

Sunday's homer was the game-winning hit for the Cubs and Heyward put his team in front once again Monday night with an RBI groundout to plate Kris Bryant in the fourth inning before a bullpen/defensive meltdown in the seventh inning. Oh yeah, and he got the game-winning knock in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday immediately after the Cubs gave the lead right back to the Pirates in the pivotal first game coming out of the All-Star Break.

He's been a difference-maker in this Cubs lineup all year, even as they search for more consistency and steady production. 

Heyward has gone from a guy who was on the bench in some of the most important games in the 2016-17 postseason because of his offensive issues to an integral part of this team's run production.

He's shown flashes of this in the past, including a month or so in the early part of last summer where he got really hot. But this has been sustained offensive production. In every month but May (when he batted .186 with a .618 OPS), Heyward has hit over .300 with an OPS well above league average, including a .968 mark in June and .992 in April.

But right now, he's not getting into all that. He's just trying to ride the wave of a long season.

"I don't try to break it down at all, honestly," Heyward said. "Just keep it simple and just stay in tune to what I got going on — first at-bat or whatever. It is kinda simple when you just look at it — not dwell on the negative, don't get too deep on that. 'Cause you're gonna fail. Just kinda choose how you want that to happen and make the best."