SAN DIEGO – The time will come for the Cubs to put their money where their mouth is.
If this team really is that good, then it’s up to Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and their baseball operations department to find the right pieces between now and the July 31 trade deadline, perhaps dealing from what’s arguably baseball’s best farm system.
If this team stays in contention, then it’s up to president of business operations Crane Kenney to deliver on that memorable quote from a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story: “Basically, my job is fill a wheelbarrow with money, take it to Theo’s office, and dump it.”
Chairman Tom Ricketts put it this way during his state-of-the-team news conference in spring training: “We’ll have the flexibility to do whatever Theo needs to do in the middle of the season.”
The roster churn won’t stop, not with the Baseball Prospectus calculations giving the Cubs a 63-percent chance of making the playoffs before Tuesday night’s sloppy 4-3 loss to the San Diego Padres at Petco Park.
This team clearly isn’t a finished product yet, not with Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro and Addison Russell combining for three errors that led to three unearned runs, and a young lineup striking out 14 times against James Shields and San Diego’s lights-out bullpen.
The Cubs needed a bigger wheelbarrow for Shields, who waited to sign until after Super Bowl Sunday and almost fell into their lap just before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. Shields had played for manager Joe Maddon and helped lead the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals to the World Series.
“It was very close,” Maddon said. “It came down to the wire. He and I talked often. I’m a big fan of his. We had a great relationship in Tampa Bay.”
Shields got the no-decision after limiting the Cubs to two solo homers (Chris Coghlan, Dexter Fowler) across seven innings and notching 11 strikeouts. Shields is 5-0 with a 3.74 ERA at a time when the Cubs are struggling to squeeze innings out of the back of their rotation, already exiling Travis Wood and Edwin Jackson to the bullpen.
Maybe investing in a 33-year-old pitcher who’s put up eight straight seasons with 200-plus innings would have backfired. But the Cubs floated a three-year, $60 million concept that included a significant amount of deferred money and a vesting option that would still cap the overall value at less than $80 million.
Shields wound up grabbing four years and $75 million guaranteed from the Padres and the chance to max out at $91 million with a club option for 2019.
“Yes,” Maddon said, he’s confident the resources will be there if the Cubs keep doing their part between the lines this summer.
“But I don’t even think about that,” Maddon said. “Just win tonight’s game. I’ve talked about that a lot, just staying in the present tense. I really have tried to train myself to win tonight’s game.
“Keep doing that often enough, and then that moment will take care of itself. Organizationally speaking, ownership, front office – fabulous. So if we just take care of our job on a daily basis, then that will take care of itself. I don’t worry about stuff like that. Ever.”
The 25-and-under infield didn’t take care of business as the Cubs wasted a strong performance from Jason Hammel, who took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and made his fifth straight quality start.
As the Cubs (21-17) slowly unraveled, Bryant fielded a chopper near the third-base line in the fifth inning and made a high throw that ricocheted off the top of first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s glove. Castro couldn’t handle a routine groundball in the seventh inning. Russell got caught in “no man’s land” in the eighth inning and dropped a pop-up in shallow center field as the Padres (20-20) kept capitalizing on mistakes.
“I got to make that play,” Castro said. “When you make an error, that kills the team.”
“I got a good read, a good bead on it and it just kept drifting away,” Russell said, “and no one else really called it.”
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“We gave them that game,” Hammel said. “We should have won that game. Everything we did tonight, there’s no way we should have lost that game.”
The Cubs are going to have to live with some of these growing pains. But inside the clubhouse, they’re not talking about this being a stepping-stone season or trying to build a bridge to 2017. Epstein and Hoyer don’t have to mortgage the future now, but there should still be bigger moves out there.
“Since December, I saw the front office doing the best they can to put a team together to compete,” catcher Miguel Montero said. “They put a really good team together with the addition of (Jon) Lester, (Jason) Motte, (David) Ross. The young guys are big-league players already. They’ll still develop, but they’re (doing it) in the big leagues.
“Maybe they think about next year or the year after. But it can be this year – and then next year and the year after. Because these guys are just getting better.”