Cubs

All-in? What Cubs have to deal and where next wave of talent is coming from

All-in? What Cubs have to deal and where next wave of talent is coming from

Theo Epstein wanted to see how the team responded to the Jose Quintana trade and performed after the All-Star break before deciding how aggressive the Cubs should be before the July 31 deadline. The clubhouse just sent the answer back: Don’t stop now. 

The Cubs opened the second half by going 6-0, their longest winning streak of the season, outscoring the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves by a 44-17 aggregate. At 49-45, the Cubs are at a high-water mark they haven’t reached since late May, finally looking more and more like the team they envisioned leaving spring training.

Knowing how Epstein operates, nothing should be ruled out during a 10-game stretch that begins Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field against the St. Louis Cardinals: A rivalry weekend series that will draw ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” four crosstown games against the rebuilding White Sox and a Miller Park showdown that will be a sea of blue with Cubs fans and the first-place-for-now Milwaukee Brewers. 

That takes us to July 31, when Epstein won’t worry about the prospect rankings or how the Cubs will find a next generation of talent. 

“The best farm system in the world is when they’re on your big-league team,” Epstein said. “Ian Happ doesn’t count as a prospect anymore. I’ll take a 22-year-old coming up and hitting 13 tanks in his first two-and-a-half months in the big leagues any day of the week over a farm system.”

Within the last year, the Cubs have traded two of the game’s top-five prospects on Baseball America’s 2017 midseason rankings, packaging Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees to acquire Aroldis Chapman and bundling Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease and two more minor-leaguers to get Quintana from the White Sox.

If they keep their big-league core intact, the Cubs probably don’t have the headliner to make a deal that sends the same shockwaves the Quintana deal created last week. 

But it would never become a buy-or-sell decision – more like how much and what to give up – because getting Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber back together in the lineup plus Kyle Hendricks’ eventual return to the rotation would automatically give the defending World Series champs a boost.  

To get a backup catcher, a high-leverage reliever and/or a buy-low pitcher, the Cubs can look in several different directions and not feel like they’re mortgaging the future – or hold onto certain assets with the hopes they might help keep Wrigley Field rocking in October for years to come.

Victor Caratini would be competing for a Pacific Coast League batting title if veteran catcher Miguel Montero hadn’t talked his way off the team. Jeimer Candelario is a 23-year-old switch-hitter who works out with Robinson Cano during the offseason and has 19 homers, 96 RBI and a .901 OPS in 147 career games at the Triple-A level.

Jim Hendry’s group that built the Latin American pipeline that produced Jimenez and Torres – and Starlin Castro and Willson Contreras – is still largely in place and will discover more talent.

The Epstein administration just used its highest picks ever on pitchers in the June draft, taking a junior-college lefty with one of the best curveballs in the draft at No. 27 (Brendon Little) and a College World Series performer/LSU’s Friday night starter at No. 30 (Alex Lange). 

“I have all the faith in the world that we’re going to continue to draft and sign players that will restock our farm system,” Epstein said. “Again, the best farm system, you can see it by watching your big-league team, whether they’ve been promoted or you’ve (traded) guys away to bring talented players here. That’s what we’re looking for.

“And, I should say, there are a lot of really talented players still down on the farm who we believe in who are going to play for the Cubs.”

It almost sounded like a running joke at Cubs Convention, team officials talking up a new group of A-ball guys as the next wave of pitching each January.

But Jen-Ho Tseng, the organization’s 2014 minor league pitcher of the year, has put up a 1.46 ERA in his first two starts at Triple-A Iowa during his age-22 season. The Taiwanese right-hander, starter Trevor Clifton and reliever Daury Torrez were three of the seven players from Double-A Tennessee chosen for the Southern League All-Star Game.

Most of the buzz revolves around right-hander Adbert Alzolay, who graduated to Tennessee after shining in 15 starts at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach (7-1, 2.98 ERA). That’s where the Cubs are seeing Kyle Hendricks parallels with Dartmouth guy Duncan Robinson and feeling optimistic about Thomas Hatch, last year’s top draft pick (No. 104 overall). Hatch – who missed the entire 2015 season with a right elbow injury and came back to become the Big 12 pitcher of the year – has a 3.49 ERA through 18 starts with the Pelicans.

Even forgotten prospect Dillon Maples – who leveraged a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina into a $2.5 million bonus as a 14th-round pick in the 2011 draft – has leaped from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee to Iowa while putting up 74 strikeouts in 46 innings as a reliever.

“I think it’s been a really good year for pitching development in our system,” Epstein said. “We are excited about certain guys on the way here.”

For the first time since Epstein took over baseball operations at Clark and Addison, the Cubs don’t appear to have a Baseball America top-100 prospect.

“And it’s the first time we can call ourselves defending world champions,” Epstein said.

Podcast: After Murphy/Darvish news, examining Cubs roster moving into September and October

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USA TODAY

Podcast: After Murphy/Darvish news, examining Cubs roster moving into September and October

With Tuesday’s news that the Cubs acquired Daniel Murphy and will be without Yu Darvish’s services for the remainder of the season, how does that affect the roster moving into the final month of the season? How much will the Cubs be able to count on Kris Bryant? How does Murphy fit in the picture for the Cubs’ potential playoff roster and lineup? Will Darvish even be ready to go in 2019?

Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki answer these questions and more on the latest CubsTalk Podcast, plus a special bonus take on Cole Hamels’ future with the club.

Check out the entire podcast here:

There are still more than five weeks left to play in the regular season and many questions to be answered, but as I touched on in the podcast — the Cubs' playoff lineup and roster is coming into focus a bit in my mind. We can now count Darvish out, which helps finalize the pitching staff. And we can add Murphy in, along with being able to more confidently pencil in Bryant after a successful round of BP (not that there was ever much doubt he'd return).

At the moment, here's my Cubs' 25-man postseason roster:

Rotation

Cole Hamels
Kyle Hendricks
Jon Lester
Jose Quintana

Bullpen

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Steve Cishek
Jesse Chavez
Justin Wilson
Mike Montgomery
Brandon Kintzler

Catchers

Willson Contreras
Victor Caratini

Infield

Anthony Rizzo
Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Daniel Murphy
Addison Russell
Tommy La Stella

Outfield

Jason Heyward
Kyle Schwarber
Ben Zobrist
Albert Almora Jr.
Ian Happ

And here's my lineup for Game 1 of the postseason if the Cubs face a right-handed pitcher:

1. Daniel Murphy - 2B
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - SS
5. Ben Zobrist - RF
6. Jason Heyward - CF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Kyle Schwarber - LF
9. Cole Hamels - P

Rationale: If we're doing this as of the moment, Hamels is the clear choice to draw the opening start. Schwarber is kind of a funny choice for the No. 8 spot, I'll admit, but Baez has proven you can drive in runs from that spot and we know he won't expand the zone too much even if he's being pitched around with the pitcher on deck.

Also, this gives the Cubs a perfect balance of left-right hitters in the lineup (plus Zobrist's switch-hitting capability), which is something Joe Maddon absolutely loves because it makes managing against difficult in terms of choosing relievers with pronounced splits.

Against a right-handed pitcher, Murphy and Zobrist are the best options on the roster to lead off. Also at the moment, Russell and Almora have no business starting against right-handed pitchers, but that could obviously change in the coming weeks.

Here are my thoughts for a Game 1 lineup if the Cubs faced a left-handed pitcher:

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

Rationale: Almora and Russell are no-brainers to start against left-handed pitchers, while Murphy heads to the bench with his .622 OPS against southpaws. Still, that's a heck of a bat to bring off the bench — a guy with a .323 average and 1.020 OPS in 24 postseason games. 

Heyward is a big question mark here, too. He's actually hitting better vs. lefties (.792 OPS) than righties (.744) this season, but he's also had just one truly good month in his resurgent season. Since posting an .873 OPS in June, he has since posted a .674 OPS in 43 games entering play Wednesday.

Right now, there's not much room for Happ in a playoff lineup, just like last fall. But what a weapon to have off the bench — a switch-hitter who could change the game with one swing of the bat or work a walk and pass the baton to the next man up. Plus, given his positional versatility, is a perfect double-switch candidate.

All this without David Bote on the roster, which would've seemed crazy a week ago. So again, the disclaimer that a lot can change in the next five weeks.

The presence of Murphy may also mean that La Stella isn't as valuable to this team as once thought. Still considered one of the game's best pinch-hitters, La Stella has not provided much pop this season — he has only 5 extra-base hits all year (all doubles) and just 3 since April 6.

With Murphy filling the role of a left-handed hitting infielder, maybe the Cubs opt for Bote over La Stella on the postseason roster. Or they could choose another pitcher like Tyler Chatwood, Randy Rosario or Jorge De La Rosa to provide more depth to the bullpen.

We'll see where the next five-plus weeks takes the team.

Get hyped: Kris Bryant took batting practice as he marches toward a return

Get hyped: Kris Bryant took batting practice as he marches toward a return

The Cubs' wild Tuesday continued with star Kris Bryant taking a round of batting practice in Detroit.

The 2016 NL MVP has been out nearly a month with a left shoulder injury, his second bout on the disabled list with the issue this season. 

Over the last couple weeks, Bryant has worked his way up from being pain-free to dry swings and tee work to taking ground balls and now hitting in batting practice. 

There's still no set timetable for when he will return to the Cubs lineup and with so much time off, he'll likely need a short rehab stint in the minors to get his timing back. So it would be shocking to see him back before rosters expand Sept. 1, but crazier things have happened.

This is great news for the Cubs, who added more depth to their infield and lineup with the acquisition of Daniel Murphy Tuesday afternoon. Murphy's main position is second base, but he can also play third and ensure the Cubs don't have to run Bryant into the ground immediately after returning.

Nobody knows how Bryant's shoulder will hold up for the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs and there is a concern that any one swing can reaggravate the issue, as it did last month. 

But he has laughed off any notion that he would let this shoulder injury keep him on the bench as the Cubs march toward their goal of a second World Series championship in three seasons. Even if Bryant isn't 100 percent upon his return, he still brings a major presence and stellar on-base percentage to a lineup that badly needs him at the moment.

Bryant has an .854 OPS in 76 games this year despite a low power output (11 homers). The shoulder injury clearly affected his power, as he's hit only 3 homers in 42 games since May 15, but he posted a .352 OBP during that time thanks to an elite walk rate.