House of cards: What if Cubs had traded for Jonathan Papelbon?


House of cards: What if Cubs had traded for Jonathan Papelbon?

CINCINNATI – Jonathan Papelbon choking Bryce Harper became the perfect billboard for the Washington Nationals and their dysfunctional season.

And perhaps a sign the Cubs got another break in a magical year where almost everything seems to have gone right.

While the Cubs crunch numbers against the Pittsburgh Pirates and run through scenarios for the National League wild-card game, they can’t rely on a closer with six All-Star selections, 349 career saves and a 2007 World Series ring from the Boston Red Sox.

The Cubs also haven’t had to deal with that many clubhouse headaches or the “Cinco Ocho” alter ego.

There are factors that have nothing to do with computers and can’t be seen on spreadsheets. There’s no doubt this overall vibe has contributed to what has become a 94-win team.

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The rookies had to squeeze into ridiculous dresses after sweeping the Cincinnati Reds with Thursday afternoon’s 5-3 victory at Great American Ball Park. Let the good times roll. 

“I’ve known Jonathan for a long time, so I certainly would never disparage him,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He had some pretty unbelievable seasons in Boston. But it does say a lot about (chemistry).

“That’s one of the things you wrestle with a lot at the trade deadline. You always want to improve your team. You always want to add depth to your team. But however you want to say it, it’s a house of cards all the time.

“You don’t know which move is going to topple things, or which move is really going to bolster things.”

With their bullpen in flux throughout the season, the Cubs had extensive talks with the Philadelphia Phillies and tried to trade for Papelbon before the July 31 deadline, but they didn’t have the financial muscle to beat the Nationals.

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The Cubs have so many Red Sox connections inside their front office and within the clubhouse. Jon Lester publicly vouched for Papelbon, saying his ex-teammate would be more than a WWE villain/cartoon character. Manager Joe Maddon has an open mind and can relate to all kinds of players.

The Cubs had less than $5 million to play with at the July 31 deadline and wound up making smaller deals with the Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, acquiring a veteran No. 5 starter (Dan Haren) and an intriguing/inconsistent reliever (Tommy Hunter).

Three days earlier, the Nationals added Papelbon to a combustible mix, giving up a Double-A pitcher and getting the Phillies to kick in $4.5 million to help cover his salary. Washington also reportedly convinced Papelbon to rework next year’s option, getting it guaranteed at $11 million instead of $13 million, with $3 million deferred to 2017.

The Washington Post just published an excellent three-part series on the rise and fall of the Nationals, a team that won 96 games last year and began this season as a World Series favorite on paper.

It exposed Matt Williams as an overmatched, tone-deaf manager and revealed the insecurities inside the clubhouse, what it did to homegrown closer Drew Storen, who got bumped out of the ninth inning and wound up breaking his thumb while slamming his locker in frustration.

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The headline to the third story in that ambitious Washington Post project: “In Jonathan Papelbon, Nationals got their closer – and their kiss of death.”

“It’s hard,” Hoyer said. “I’ve seen examples when it worked great – a team makes big changes at the deadline and they take off. And I’ve seen a lot of examples where doing almost nothing or doing small things is the right thing.”

Hoyer once interviewed for the job that went to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo, an old-school scout at heart with strong convictions and a sharp eye for talent.

The Nationals have gone from being a rebuilding blueprint to a cautionary tale for a Cubs franchise that is feeling pretty, pretty good about itself these days and will have to guard against the institutional arrogance rooted in Washington.

But Theo Epstein’s front office should get credit for all the smaller moves that have added up to the third-best record in baseball and a 21-game improvement from the year before.

It’s getting Clayton Richard for one dollar from Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate. It’s signing Trevor Cahill to a minor-league deal. It’s dealing with the Seattle Mariners to get Fernando Rodney and Austin Jackson – who blasted a three-run homer to give the Cubs the lead in the third inning on Thursday, the day after putting up five RBI – as insurance policies.

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It’s allowed Maddon to play mix-and-match with the lineup and push whatever buttons he wants in the bullpen. Since getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the worst team in baseball in late July, the Cubs have gone 43-19.

“We’ve been able to add quite a bit of depth,” Hoyer said, “and that’s really helped us as guys have struggled or as guys have gotten hurt.

“To a man, the guys that we’ve added have really brought something to the clubhouse and brought something to our team.”

Keep playing it out: What if Chase Utley hadn’t been so focused on going home to the West Coast and directing the Phillies to make a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers?

The Cubs tried to get the six-time All-Star second baseman in August for his postseason experience and lead-by-example qualities.

But with Utley, would Starlin Castro have gotten buried and never come close to his red-hot September (1.202 OPS)? Could Javier Baez have showcased his all-around ability, either for the playoff roster, an offseason trade for pitching or the 2016 Opening Day lineup?

“You never know,” Hoyer said. “That’s the hardest part. You have to make decisions at the time not knowing what ripples in that pond are going to happen based on that move.”

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Matt Carpenter giving the Cubs Daniel Murphy PTSD

Say the name Daniel Murphy around Cubs fans (who have been around since before they won the 2016 World Series) and expect a dirty look or shade of some sort.

What Murphy did to the Cubs in the 2015 National League Championship Series still haunts the fanbase, even if they did end the championship drought the following fall.

Now, the Cubs are seeing it again and their PTSD is in overdrive.

St. Louis infielder Matt Carpenter has been on an unreal tear of late, setting Cardinals franchise records in the process.

Throughout this five-game series at Wrigley Field, Carpenter is 9-for-16 with 6 homers, 10 RBI, 8 runs scored, 3 walks, a pair of doubles and a bunt single to lead off Sunday's game against the Cubs' shift.

"We're seeing this guy probably at his best moment in his life as a baseball player," Joe Maddon said. "My god. We saw it a couple years ago in the playoffs. We're seeing it all over again.

"Similar kind of a swing, not missing anything. It's pretty impressive."

In that 2015 NLCS, Murphy — then with the New York Mets — homered in all 4 games while hitting .529 with a 1.850 OPS, driving in 6 and scoring 6. 

To put that in perspective: The Cubs scored only 8 runs as a team in the 4 games.

Maddon and the Cubs don't know what to do to get Carpenter out right now, so they've resorted to walking him whenever possible, like in the second inning Sunday when they just dealt out a free pass to the Cardinals infielder with runners on second and third and two outs.

They also tried out a funky shift in the seventh inning Sunday, with Kris Bryant as a fourth outfielder in left-center, Addison Russell as the only defender on the left side of the infield and Javy Baez playing on the grass in shallow right field. It worked, as Carpenter grounded it to Baez for a routine out.

Beyond that, all the Cubs can do is hope time eventually wears Carpenter down. After all, nobody can stay this hot forever.

Even though Carpenter and the Cardinals are leaving town after Sunday's game, these two team square off against each other again next weekend for the final series in St. Louis.

"For them, it's a blast to watch," Maddon said. "Give the guy credit. What he's working right now is unique. The last time I saw it was Daniel Murphy. 

"Before that, I think, was Barry Bonds in the World Series in 2002. Playoffs with Murphy a couple years ago, where the guy — every pitch that is thrown — he's on time, he's on balance with a forceful swing that looks like the ball can go out of the ballpark every time. Bonds, Murphy and now him."

That's some serious company to be in.

So what's led to this insane stretch from Carpenter?

Maybe it's the salsa.

When told about that theory, Maddon laughed and said:

"Listen, that makes total sense to me. Can he send a jar over here, please?"

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

Sunday began like most days have around the Cubs recently: No update on Yu Darvish.

But while the skies opened up over Wrigley Field about 90 minutes before game time, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sat in the third-base dugout and spoke candidly about where Darvish is at currently and how much the Cubs can count on him during the stretch run.

Darvish threw from flat ground — 135 feet — Sunday morning and Epstein said it was "his best day in a long time. He threw really well and felt really good."

Still, there is no specific timetable for when Darvish may be back on the Wrigley Field mound, facing live hitters in a game that matters.

The next step for Darvish will be throwing off a mound, but the Cubs aren't yet talking about where or when the 31-year-old pitcher will go on a rehab assignment.

With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just over a week, Epstein and the Cubs know they can't simply project Darvish into the September — or October — rotation.

"I think just making an educated guess," Epstein said. "You can't be overly reliant on somebody who hasn't been able to stay healthy and perform this year. At the same time, you track the rehab closely because you know you have to try to anticipate what he might be able to give you.

"...If you put yourself in a position where you're overly reliant on something that hasn't been dependable up to this point and then it doesn't come through, it's probably more on you than on the fates."

Darvish has accounted for only 40 innings for the Cubs this season and hasn't pitched since May 20. He made it through 5 innings just three times in his eight starts on the campaign.

This is the second DL stint for Darvish this season. He had a bout of the flu in early May and then initially went back on the shelf over Memorial Day Weekend with a triceps issue. The triceps strain has morphed into an elbow impingement after Darvish made a rehab start with Class-A South Bend and he received a cortisone shot in the elbow in late June.

Mike Montgomery has taken Darvish's place in the Cubs rotation and the southpaw has had a lot of success in the role with a 3.02 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 10 starts, averaging nearly 6 innings a start.

Of course, Montgomery's insertion into the rotation has left a bit of a hole in the bullpen as the Cubs have been without their top long man and down one reliable left-handed option.

The long relief role was filled last week with the trade for Jesse Chavez, but the Cubs could probably still use another lefty in the bullpen with Justin Wilson's control issues, Brian Duensing's struggles and Randy Rosario's relative inexperience and worrisome peripheral numbers.

Whether the Cubs will acquire another starting pitcher before the trade deadline is unknown. Epstein's front office knows they need more pitching and understands it's much harder to acquire arms after July 31 than before.

But with Montgomery already filling the last spot in the rotation, Drew Smyly on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery while being stretched out as a starter and now Chavez in town, the Cubs have some veteran starting pitching depth beyond the inexperienced Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood Jr.

The starting pitching market is relatively thin at the moment in terms of arms a team like the Cubs could acquire and plug into a potential playoff rotation. And that's saying nothing of the pieces it would require to pull off such a move, as the Cubs don't have the elite-level prospects they once had to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana the past two summers.

But with Darvish's status unknown and Tyler Chatwood currently boasting more walks than strikeouts through 18 starts, the Cubs aren't exactly sleeping easy at night trying to project their October rotation.

Epstein acknowledged the front office is focused primarily on pitching ahead of the deadline and though it may be tougher to make those big-name deals compared to years past, that doesn't necessarily take the Cubs out of the running on the impact guys.

Still, don't expect Jacob deGrom or Chris Archer to be walking through that door anytime soon.

"I think we're in a more difficult position to do so. I don't think it's impossible," Epstein said. "But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands. Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective.

"I think we're hopefully pursuing a lot of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunistic. And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probably not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us.

"So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."