The Cubs want to become buyers this summer.
After years of making sign-and-flip deals, and getting trade-deadline questions in spring training, and having their best pitchers audition for other teams, the Cubs should be looking to upgrade before July 31.
Whether or not that means adding a No. 1 starter, this team is heading in the right direction. The Cubs have been in the loop with the Philadelphia Phillies about Cole Hamels going back to at least last summer’s waiver claim.
The trend line doesn’t change with Wednesday’s 8-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field, though it did underline some nagging issues with the pitching staff.
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The Cubs still closed out the month at 12-8, enjoying Joe Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy and clubhouse dance parties. Mega-prospects Kris Bryant and Addison Russell graduated to The Show. All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro appear to be raising their games at age 25 while playing for a relevant team. Jake Arrieta (3-1, 2.03 ERA) carried the rotation during Jon Lester’s slow start (0-2, 6.23 ERA).
The last time the Cubs finished April with a winning record was 2008, when they won 97 games and their second straight division title.
“You’re always thinking about that stuff,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “You’re always hoping you get off to a good start. You’re always hoping you’re in that position. I feel like it’s pretty early now. You’re at that stage where a two- or three-game winning streak or losing streak really changes your outlook in a hurry.
“But certainly we’re hopeful that we’re in that position. You want to be able to try to improve the team midseason. And I think we’re obviously going to prepare as though that’s the case.”
Hamels did not include the Cubs on his 20-team no-trade list this year. It’s still hard to see Theo Epstein’s front office taking on the massive financial commitment (almost $100 million through 2018) while also giving up the high-level prospects it would take, particularly knowing the frontline pitchers who could be out there as free agents this winter.
But the Cubs can deal from one of the game’s richest farm systems and will probably be looking to upgrade the rotation (and address whatever other issues develop this summer).
Kyle Hendricks (0-1, 5.23 ERA) only made it through five innings on Wednesday night but did manage to limit the Pirates (12-10) to two runs. Middle relievers Gonzalez Germen and Phil Coke then combined to give up six runs as Pittsburgh (12-10) broke the game wide open.
Hendricks had been such a pleasant surprise stepping into the rotation after the Fourth of July sale that shipped Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s. But Hendricks is still searching for what propelled him during last year’s breakout rookie campaign (7-2, 2.46 ERA).
“I’m always a slower starter,” Hendricks said. “This is particularly a little slow. All four starts haven’t been particularly great. I haven’t been able to get deep into a ballgame. Not really a crisis of faith, but one of those points where the confidence has got to change a little bit. You just got to trust your stuff.”
The Cubs aren’t buried in the National League Central, trailing the St. Louis Cardinals by two games and sending the message they are playing to win now.
“We can play with anybody I’ve seen so far,” Maddon said. “I feel very comfortable about that. We have to pitch in the middle. That’s probably one area we got to get a little bit stingier with. Overall, the starting (pitching) and the latter part of the bullpen has been really good.
“Offensively, (we’re) seeing a lot of pitches, working good at-bats. We’re scoring runs, running the bases well and playing catch on defense. There’s not a whole lot to complain about. If we just keep this kind of a methodology going, I’ll be very happy with it.”