MILWAUKEE – The Cubs have probably already made their biggest move before the July 31 deadline – and maybe the biggest deal from this entire trading cycle. Acquiring Jose Quintana added a stunning new dimension to the Cubs-Sox rivalry, snapped the defending champs to attention and opened up future possibilities for Theo Epstein’s front office.
But within the final 72 hours before the non-waiver deadline, it’s obvious that Epstein’s creativity and competitive streak won’t allow him to stop at Quintana. The Cubs have earned it, winning 11 of their first 13 games since the All-Star break and knocking the Milwaukee Brewers out of first place in the National League Central.
The Cubs have discussed Miami Marlins catcher A.J. Ellis – who has defensive presence and experience working with Clayton Kershaw – and will almost certainly add a veteran backup to reduce the wear and tear on Willson Contreras.
The Quintana blockbuster became a reminder of never say never, but the Cubs appear to be focusing more on strengthening their bullpen than adding to a rotation that has gone 10-0 with a 2.51 ERA after the All-Star break.
“If I had to bet, I would bet we’re going to do something,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday at Miller Park. “I don’t even know if it’s going to be an arm or not. It’s a possible catcher. It’s a possible anything with our guys. But I would imagine that something’s going to happen.
“Just knowing our guys and the kind of work they’re putting in right now, I would imagine something may occur over the next couple days.”
In Maddon’s mind, the emergence of Brian Duensing (2.51 ERA, 49 strikeouts and 10 walks in 43 innings) and Mike Montgomery moving back to the bullpen has lessened a specific need for a left-handed reliever. Duensing and Montgomery also represent the kind of buy-low, under-the-radar pitchers the Cubs like to target.
Maddon downplayed the idea that Koji Uehara is finally starting to show his age (42), giving up three homers in his last five appearances after allowing only one in 29.2 innings before the All-Star break: “There’s nothing going on.”
Maddon’s most pressing bullpen issue is preserving Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop – who combined have made 90 appearances this season – and making sure his top setup guys stay sharp in front of All-Star closer Wade Davis.
“If you look at our group in the bullpen right now, we got varied talents,” Maddon said. “Duensing, (with) what he’s done, has really made our left side a lot better out of the bullpen. We got righties that are good against lefties. The biggest thing is just to not have to throw somebody too often.
“My biggest concern would be that – the guy you’d really like to match up in the seventh or the eighth inning. If you get on a roll, then you start using these guys too much, in a good way. Depth is what you would be looking for – that high-leverage, later-inning guy that you’re really comfortable with, so you can spread the work out a little bit more evenly.”
Strop still didn’t make last year’s playoff circle of trust, and neither did Hector Rondon, the former 30-save closer who has shown flashes of dominance. As only Maddon could say: “Rondon is really exciting right now, throwing at 100 mph. He’s averaging, I think, 97. He’s turning into a different FM station. He’s 97.4 or something like that right now.”
The front office that tries to think of everything already knows Maddon’s philosophy, strengths and weaknesses as a leader and an in-game manager. Why stop now after shocking the baseball world with the Quintana trade?
“You want to win, you want to win a lot, you’re going to wear bullpen guys out,” Maddon said. “Because that’s what happens when you’re winning games – your bullpen guys don’t get rest. So that’s where you really like to have that solid, late-inning depth.”