The Cubs know agents and other teams will sense the desperation if they have to replace 40 percent of their rotation this offseason. Signing at least two frontline starters would be a massive undertaking and a huge financial commitment for a franchise that prefers to make long-term investments in hitters and use a pay-as-you-go plan for pitching.
Now the Cubs see the July 31 trade deadline as a chance to get a jump on that market, so they don’t feel forced to win two bidding wars on free agents or rushed into a lopsided deal for the top-of-the-rotation starter every contender wants.
That one big-picture idea gives more insight into Theo Epstein’s front office than the daily stock reports on a 36-34 Cubs team that’s up after Tuesday night’s 4-0 win over the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field. Kicking the can down the road might not make as much sense this time.
“Every transaction season — winter and summer — we’re always going to be looking for pitching,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “That will be our priority here at the deadline. We’re obviously working hard to assess it, making all the contacts and scouting everyone.
“But pitching’s always in high demand. That’s the reality of needing pitching — both in the winter and the summer — it’s always what people are looking for.”
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The Cubs got creative last summer and flipped a redundant minor-league hitter (Dan Vogelbach) to the Seattle Mariners for the guy who would get the final out in the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 (Mike Montgomery).
The Cubs don’t believe that moment alone will define the lefty swingman, who continues to look like a short-term fix and a long-range answer for a rotation that will see Jake Arrieta and John Lackey become free agents after this season. Following the game plan, Montgomery (1-3, 2.26 ERA) shut down the Padres for six innings, getting 12 groundball outs and four strikeouts while allowing only three singles and two walks.
Last season’s best-in-baseball rotation needs new blood, but the Cubs aren’t going anywhere if they can’t count on Arrieta (6-5, 4.64 ERA) and Lackey (5-7, 4.98 ERA) from one start to the next. Kyle Hendricks, last season’s major-league ERA leader, doesn’t know when his right hand tendinitis will subside and allow him to be activated from the disabled list.
Beyond the daunting task of trying to handle all their pitching business in one winter, the Cubs are only a half-game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. No team in the National League Central right now can match this combination of on-paper talent, position-player depth, big-market resources and playoff-tested experience.
But even 70 games into the season, Cubs officials still don’t have a great feel for how ultra-aggressive to be (or not) at the end of July and what to make of the defending champs, beyond stressing how much they believe in this group.
“Still assessing,” Hoyer said. “We just haven’t been able to get away from .500 yet. I fully believe we will. I have confidence we will. But it’s just been one of those things where it feels like we’ve had win one, lose one, win two, lose two. Hopefully, we’ll get out of that trend and start getting away from .500 a little bit.
“The division thing is a false sense of security. I try to measure our team way more against .500, against how we look (on the field) than how we look in the standings, because I think how you look in the standings can be a little bit misleading.”
That eye test might take almost six more weeks, as buyers and sellers clearly emerge. Hoyer already noticed how much the trade chatter picked up once the draft ended last week. Nothing this summer will feel quite like the single-minded pursuit of Aroldis Chapman and the mythical 108-year quest. But instead of thinking about it like mortgaging the farm system, maybe this deadline will actually be planning for the future.