Cubs

Cubs: Can Theo Epstein land a big fish at the trade deadline?

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Cubs: Can Theo Epstein land a big fish at the trade deadline?

Theo Epstein doesn’t know if the Cubs will make a splash at the trade deadline. But at least July 31 won’t be about James Russell sending Jeff Samardzija off with a cigarette and a beer and Jason Hammel’s pregnant wife bursting into tears.

The Cubs sold high with last summer’s Fourth of July blockbuster trade, getting two first-round picks from the Oakland A’s (Addison Russell and Billy McKinney) and hoping they wouldn’t have to do that type of deal again.

The Cubs are looking to buy in Year 4 of the Epstein administration. The president of baseball operations promised to make difficult decisions with emotional detachment and the big picture in mind, methodically building The Foundation for Sustained Success.

So how much of the future are the Cubs willing to sacrifice now?

The Cubs are 47-40 at the All-Star break, which is good enough to hold a one-game lead over the New York Mets for the National League’s second wild card. Baseball Prospectus (69 percent) and FanGraphs (64.3 percent) give them a good chance to make the playoffs.

Those computer simulations also see the Cubs as buried behind the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, giving them almost no chance to win the division (6.2 percent to 4.8 percent), which could mean a one-and-done playoff game on the road.

“Teams do consider the differences between wild-card contention and winning the division,” Epstein said. “It’s a significant difference. But at the same time, you have to look at where you are. For us, any type of postseason play – or the opportunity to go win in the postseason – is a significant step and would mean a lot to us for a lot of different reasons.

“So I don’t think you take anything lightly – or discount the importance of that postseason berth – just because it may look like the wild card now.”

Also remember that last year’s two World Series teams – the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals – got into the tournament as wild cards.

So if the Cubs want to build off this momentum and expose their young players to October pressure – not to mention keep the turnstiles moving at Wrigley Field and dress up the product for the next rounds of TV negotiations – a three-month rental player could still be a fit.

“It depends on the acquisition cost,” Epstein said. “It’s always about who you’re getting, what kind of impact they make, and then the acquisition cost. It’s easy to make deals. But it’s hard to make deals that make sense.”

[MORE: Bryant, Rizzo take their All-Star experiences in stride]

It’s harder to make deals if you have less than $5 million to play with and need an established starting pitcher and could use a veteran outfielder and another power arm for the bullpen.

“I do think we have some flexibility,” Epstein said. “We didn’t spend all the money – we built in a little bit of a cushion for in-season moves.”

If that hasn’t eliminated someone like Cole Hamels from consideration, then let’s look at a farm system that so far hasn’t been mortgaged in a win-now trade.

If Russell, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber are (understandably) off the table now that they have become a big-league second baseman, an All-Star third baseman and a Futures Game MVP, do the Cubs even have a blue-chip prospect to entice a team like the Philadelphia Phillies?

Besides Schwarber (No. 6), the Cubs placed two more hitters on Baseball America’s midseason list of the industry’s top 50 prospects.

Gleyber Torres (No. 28), a shortstop out of Venezuela, is 18 years old and playing at Class-A South Bend. McKinney (No. 30), who projects as a corner outfielder, is hitting .303 with two homers and 24 RBI through 51 games at Double-A Tennessee.

As far as the surplus of middle infielders, Javier Baez (.922 OPS) hasn’t played for Triple-A Iowa since June 7 because of a fractured finger. Arismendy Alcantara can’t generate the same buzz after struggling to adjust to a super-utility role in April (2-for-26).

Carl Edwards Jr. is working out of Iowa’s bullpen now and could become a factor in the season’s second half. Pierce Johnson – who has dealt with injuries throughout his career – is 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA in six starts for Tennessee this year.

If the Cubs had any big-time prospects close to joining the rotation, you would have heard about them by now, instead of seeing Donn Roach, Clayton Richard and Dallas Beeler make spot starts.

“It’s been a good year in the system,” Epstein said. “A lot of guys have performed. The system’s strong. We’ve graduated a lot of good players, but we still have a top system. Not the top system. But a top system.”

[MORE: Home Run Derby an 'emotional roller coaster' for Bryant family]

Epstein also acknowledged: “It doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what other teams think.”

Epstein is certainly aware of the way the team is covered – and can use the media to shape public perceptions – but he won’t make deals to win tomorrow’s headlines.

Star manager Joe Maddon keeps saying the Cubs can compete with anyone, and the players wear “We Are Good” T-shirts. A big trade could give the clubhouse a shot of adrenaline.

“I think it gets misstated at times and people make it a binary thing,” Epstein said. “Like: ‘The front office needs to make this trade in order to show support to the players, to reward them and recognize that they’ve done their job.’

“We have to support our players every single game of the season, and there are a lot of different ways to do that.

“We’ve taken an aggressive mindset all year, whether it’s calling up Schwarber to DH, or not worrying about Super Two (financial implications) at all with any of our prospects, or making small trades here or there.

“You can’t always land like the big fish at the trade deadline.

“If you do, great. If you don’t, it certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t support the team or the players or reward them. I think that’s sort of a false notion.”

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

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AP

The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.