Cubs will have to earn more additions at trade deadline and ‘become the team that everyone loves again’

Cubs will have to earn more additions at trade deadline and ‘become the team that everyone loves again’

BALTIMORE – It’s the middle of July and the Cubs still don’t really know what type of team they have. Sure, their fans streamed into the Inner Harbor, Baltimore’s downtown hotels and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Most of their players own World Series rings. But trading for Jose Quintana became more about 2018, 2019 and 2020 than the rest of this summer.

What’s next? Who knows? Cubs president Theo Epstein sat behind home plate during Friday’s 9-8 rollercoaster win over the Orioles, the beginning of a post-All-Star break evaluation period that will determine just how aggressive (or not) the front office and ownership will be leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.

“We have to play better,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “That’s it. It’s plain and simple. We just have to play better baseball and become the team that everyone loves again.”

The Cubs got off to a roaring start during the first three innings against Kevin Gausman (6.39 ERA), when Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber blasted back-to-back homers into the left-center field bullpen, Ben Zobrist launched one onto the right-field patio deck and Jason Heyward crushed a ball onto Eutaw Street.

Looking like all-in buyers with an 8-0 lead, Mike Montgomery couldn’t finish the fifth inning and the Cubs almost completely trashed the early rough drafts of the feel-good stories. The bullpen that had been such a first-half strength – and needs the Quintana reinforcement and seems due for a regression – watched Mark Trumbo turn it into an 8-8 game in the eighth inning when he hammered a two-run homer off Koji Uehara.

And then Addison Russell delivered in the ninth inning, drilling Brad Brach’s 96-mph, first-pitch fastball into the left-center field seats, showing why the Cubs have so much faith in the core players they didn’t send to the White Sox in the Quintana deal.

“The front office will tell us how it is,” Rizzo said. “They’re consistent. They believe in us, just as much as we believe in ourselves. They don’t blow smoke up us, and they back it up.

“It’s a really good feeling as a player for us to come back with a brand new addition after a nice break. It’s just amazing. It’s a credit to them for pulling that off.”

The issue with this team has been putting it all together night after night after night. Epstein won’t be fooled by one uneven win over a 42-47 Orioles team. The 44-45 Cubs will try to reach the .500 mark for the 21st time this season on Saturday when Jake Arrieta faces the organization that drafted, developed and traded him before he became a Cy Young Award winner.

“It’s been that time,” Arrieta said. “We just haven’t really been able to kind of get a firm grasp on the way we’ve been playing. It’s just been kind of up and down throughout the first half. That seems like the story of the first few months of our season.

“But we obviously need to gain some ground.”

The Milwaukee Brewers won again to remain 5.5 games up in the National League Central, where everyone knows how the Cubs responded to a 97-win season in 2015 (by spending almost $290 million on free agents) and a 98.8-percent chance to make the playoffs last summer (by acquiring All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman). 

“We have a front office that’s willing to make moves if we show them we earn those moves,” Heyward said. “That’s what you have to do if you want things to happen. Whether it’s a trade or whether it’s advancing into the postseason, you got to earn that stuff.” 

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two MLB moves that changed the landscape of Kris Bryant's trade market

Two reported transactions Tuesday may not have drawn much attention from Cubs fans, but both directly impact the North Siders.

First, The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya reported the Angels are trading third baseman Zack Cozart to the Giants for cash and a player to be named later. Soon thereafter, free agent shortstop Didi Gregorius agreed to a one-year deal with the Phillies, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported.

From a Cubs perspective, the Angels' and Phillies' moves impact a potential Kris Bryant trade market. According to Ardaya, the Giants are picking up the remaining $12.67 million on Cozart’s deal. This clears payroll space for Los Angeles to make a run at a superstar free agent, like third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson.

The Phillies inquired with the Cubs regarding a potential Bryant trade, according to multiple reports. However, Bryant’s unresolved grievance case is a holdup in any trade talks, should the Cubs entertain offers. If he wins, he'll become a free agent next winter. If he loses, he'll remain under team control through 2021.

Gregorius will slot into shortstop for Philadelphia, while incumbent Jean Segura will move to second base, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. The Phillies are less likely to pursue Bryant — should the Cubs shop him — than they were entering Tuesday. Things can change, but they have less of an infield need as they did on Monday.

On the other hand, the Angels and new manager Joe Maddon suddenly could be a candidate to pursue Bryant. Acquiring him would bring less certainty than Rendon or Donaldson, as Bryant is only under contract for two seasons more, max. Furthermore, acquiring Bryant will cost the Angels prospect capital, while adding Rendon and Donaldson will 'only' entail paying them handsomely as free agents.

In short, Philadelphia is less likely to pursue Bryant than they were entering Tuesday; the possibility of the Angels doing so is stronger than it was entering the day. The Angels haven't been directly connected to Bryant at this point, but that now could change.

Cubs still waiting for their number to be called in baseball's offseason equation


Cubs still waiting for their number to be called in baseball's offseason equation

SAN DIEGO — Jed Hoyer busted out the fishing and football metaphors to explain how the Winter Meetings have gone for his front office.

The Cubs have so far not made a move of any magnitude on baseball's biggest offseason stage, but that's not really a surprise. Their Opening Day payroll is already projected for about $6 million over the luxury tax threshold and so far, there hasn't been much movement in the trade market. 

Hoyer called the first couple days in San Diego productive in terms of having conversations and laying groundwork. But when asked if he thought the Cubs would make a substantial move before the end of the Winter Meetings, Hoyer wasn't optimistic.

"Right now, we don't have anything that's in the red zone," the Cubs GM said. "That'd be my instinct. But at the same time, there's a bunch of days left. More than any other time of year, things happen quickly at the Winter Meetings. That's the one great thing about the Winter Meetings, where an idea can go from the germination to deal very quickly because we're in the same place and people have a certain level of motivation."

The Cubs leaving San Diego without a big trade or adding impact players to the 2020 roster is certainly frustrating for fans who are still trying to wrap their heads around how this team has gone from a potential dynasty to one that is now likely breaking up the core of players.

It's frustrating to the Cubs, too. As Hoyer put it, "the percentage of times that you cast into the water and get a fish is really rare," while preaching patience on the team's offseason.

In a lot of ways, the winter is out of the Cubs' hands. Because they're not players at the top of the free agent market while they attempt to shed payroll, they have to wait for teams to decide to turn to the trade market to fill their roster needs. When Josh Donaldson and Anthony Rendon are still out there and require only money — and not a haul of prospects or big-league players — to acquire, it's understandable teams would want to wait that out before resorting to meeting the Cubs' asking price for Kris Bryant.

"The people that are making that decision, they're trying to figure out that calculus," Hoyer said. "In some cases, they want to make a trade because that's easier or they like that player a lot and in some situations, they'd rather just spend the money. That's always the calculus you have this time of year — the teams that are in those markets are making that decision."

So it goes for the Cubs, who are spending another Winter Meetings preaching patience and another offseason operating more at the fringe of the big-league roster than at the top of it. 

That's not to say the Cubs are still figuring out their plan of attack for the offseason. They're aligned in their focus this winter — somewhere in the middle of rebuilding and going all-in for the immediate future. More like retooling on the fly. 

Theo Epstein's front office isn't planning on punting on 2020, even with a rookie manager, a brand new coaching staff and more budgetary restraints. Not when the division is still within reach, as no other team has emerged as a powerhouse within the NL Central.

The Cubs also aren't going to mortgage the long-term future for the next couple of years. Ideally, they would be able to make moves to keep the team competitive during the window of contention in 2020 and 2021 while also ensuring the roster has a better long-term future than is currently constituted.

"The makings of a very, very good team is currently under control on our roster, with a chance to win the division. You do that and you have a chance to have a great October," Epstein said Monday. "That's not to be taken lightly. At the same time, we can't just pretend that we can keep putting off making some important decisions for the future if there's an opportunity to strike that can help ensure a better future, we have to do that. We also have to be very mindful of what's on our roster right now, how we can complement it and how we can put ourselves in the best possible position for 2020. Both things are important."

The Cubs have been having a lot of conversations with various relievers and role players to round out the roster, similar to the moves they've made so far in free agency (right-handed pitcher Dan Winkler), trade (right-handed pitcher Jharel Cotton) and the waiver wire (left-handed pitcher CD Pelham).

"The end of our roster did struggle last year in certain places and we have to do a better job of fortifying that," Hoyer said. "And so those conversations are really important. They're not the names you read in trade rumors and stuff like that, but they are really important and we are having a ton of those conversations."