How Theo Epstein views the trade deadline with Cubs off to such a slow start

How Theo Epstein views the trade deadline with Cubs off to such a slow start

SAN DIEGO – Cubs executives repeatedly framed last summer’s blockbuster Aroldis Chapman trade with the Yankees by saying the players practically forced the issue with a 25-6 start. A 25-26 start makes you wonder what the front office needs to see over the next 50 games before deciding if this team is worth the same kind of all-in investment. 

The idea of an uber-talented team on a mission to end the 108-year drought became part of the rationale for giving up elite prospect Gleyber Torres and bringing in a rental closer with off-the-field baggage. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein memorably put it this way: “If not now, when?”  

“I know that’s an easy sort of narrative that we probably play into sometimes, but I don’t look at it that way,” Epstein said before Tuesday’s 6-2 loss to the last-place Padres made it a five-game losing streak on this West Coast trip. “I don’t think our players have to like prove to us that they care or they’re deserving of help if we can get it. They are deserving, they do care, and if we need help, we’ll try to get it.”

But the question isn’t about heart or desire or team chemistry. It’s about performance between here and the July 31 deadline, whether or not the Cubs will play at a sustained level where Epstein’s inner circle will feel the same sense of urgency to make the deal for a top-of-the-rotation starter that hasn’t materialized yet during multiple trading cycles.

The lineup scored only two runs against Dinelson Lamet – a 24-year-old right-hander making his second start in The Show – and went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position that night and left nine more men on base at Petco Park. But Epstein believes those solutions are already on the 25-man roster – Kyle Schwarber homered to break an 0-for-13 streak – because the franchise already invested so much capital in hitters and faces a pitching deficit.

Eddie Butler didn’t impress this time, leaving two runners on for lefty reliever Brian Duensing with one out in the fifth inning. Duensing struck out Cory Spangenberg before Austin Hedges drove a ball into the left-field corner for a two-run double and a 6-2 lead. Butler is 2-1 with a 4.42 ERA and one quality start through this four-game audition.

“We’re still always looking to add depth to the pitching staff,” Epstein said. “That’s the quickest way that our season can get hamstrung – if we suffer an injury or two with our starting staff. So that’s always the area of first attention. The hitting is just the process of making adjustments, and that will turn. That will turn in the right direction.”

The 2016 Cubs made it absolutely clear – Chapman joined a team with almost a 99-percent chance to make the playoffs (Baseball Prospectus odds) and a 56-1 record when leading entering the ninth inning. This message never got lost in translation: The only way the season could be considered a true success would be if it ended with a parade down Michigan Avenue.

“I felt like last year we had a legitimate chance to win the World Series,” Epstein said. “There was a potential Achilles’ heel that we could mitigate against – and we could fortify and turn it into a strength. It was appropriate given where we were in the standings, and given the talent of the team and the way we foresaw the last few months going, especially October.

“We’ll just make the same evaluation. But it’s not about our players having to like step up in July to prove something to us. I don’t look at it that way. When we’re not playing good baseball, it’s not because they don’t care. They’re just as frustrated as we are.

“You just make a judgment based on what the team needs and balancing it against short-term and long-term interests.”

No one should doubt Epstein’s creativity and ferocious competitive nature or dismiss a group of players with so many World Series rings. It’s just that the Cubs will face real obstacles to any deal if they don’t want to trade off their major-league roster and can’t offer an upper-level, blue-chip pitching prospect in return.

Everyone wants young, controllable starters who can thrive in a pennant race. Some other executive thinking about making history might be saying to himself: “If not now, when?”

“What are we, like, two games out of first place?” Epstein said. “We’re in a very competitive race. The first place you look is not into the souls of your players. You look at the standings and you look at your farm system and you look at the markets. You just try to make rational decisions.”

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs' Tommy Hottovy: 'Scary part' of COVID-19 is how fast deadly virus spreads

Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy is home in Kansas City for a couple rare days during the baseball season. His mom wants to meet him for lunch, and his sister, a grade-school teacher in town, just had a baby that he hasn’t had a chance to see yet.

“How much would I love to go get to see her and my new nephew?” Hottovy said. “Can’t do it. Just can’t.”

Not this time. Not with what’s at stake. Not when possible threats to health and professional purpose lurk in every unfamiliar hallway, byway and unmasked face while the Cubs navigate their first multi-city road trip of the season.

Don’t believe the risk of spread and large-scale COVID-19 team outbreaks are that sensitive, extreme and potentially swift? Just ask the Marlins and Cardinals, whose outbreaks in the first week of play put their seasons on hold and threatened the status of the league’s season.

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“I’m not leaving the hotel. I told my family and friends and everybody [in Kansas City],” Hottovy said. “We all signed up for this, to make sure that for this to work we all have to make those kinds of sacrifices. I love my family to death and would love to get to see them, but right now this is our home.”

The Cubs second trip, which started with a 6-1 victory Wednesday in Kansas City and continues to St. Louis before finishing in Cleveland next week, coincides with stepped-up COVID-19 protocols from Major League Baseball following the Marlins and Cardinals outbreaks.

The Cubs already had protocols in place that exceeded MLB’s original mandates and that are in compliance with the new mandates. And a month into the league’s restart they remained the only team without a player having tested positive for the virus.

RELATED: Cubs better prepared than MLB to finish COVID-19 season — which is the problem

In fact, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant decided on his own to start wearing a protective mask on the bases when the Cubs played last week in Cincinnati, where three Reds players were sidelined either by positive tests or self-reported symptoms as that series opened. And first baseman Anthony Rizzo told ESPN 1000 on Tuesday that he plans to keep a mask in his pocket while in the field in St. Louis and will consider wearing it when somebody reaches base.

“No matter what measures you put in place, when you’re trying to pull off a season that requires travel in the middle of a global pandemic, it ultimately does come down to personal responsibility,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “And everyone is at the mercy of the least responsible person because of the nature of the spread of this disease.”

Nobody knows that more than Hottovy and many of the Cubs who watched their pitching coach deteriorate in real time during daily Zoom sessions in May and June until the worst symptoms of his frightening monthlong bout with the virus forced him to hand off his job duties.

Whether Hottovy’s experience led directly to the Cubs’ more extreme safety policies or the individual players’ apparent hyper diligence, MLB’s recent coronavirus outbreaks and other cases at least raise questions about whether some teams and players — or even the league — respect the potential severity of a virus that has killed more than 158,000 Americans in five months.

“I don’t think people underestimate that aspect of it; I think they underestimated how easy it was to spread,” Hottovy said of the outbreaks — including a Cardinals outbreak that reportedly was traced to one asymptomatic, outside individual familiar with the team.

Hottovy called the highly contagious nature of the virus “the scary part of this,” both in terms of the potential to quickly render an organization unable to field a team as well as the subsequent, inherent risk that poses to family members and others who might, in turn, be among those who then become severely impacted by the virus.

And the hardest part, he said, is not letting down your guard within the team bubble when it’s easy to trust that when it’s only teammates in the room that it’s OK to disregard masks, distancing and other safety measures.

“That’s when it gets dangerous,” said Hottovy, whose team talks often about assuming everyone — including each other — has the virus.

So just like in Cincinnati, neither he nor anyone else in the Cubs’ traveling party plans to go anywhere but to and from hotels and ballparks during their trip.

“Listen, you don’t have to search too far for a reason to take it serious,” Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis said.

“I have three of my close friends who got it, that are over it. But the symptoms are as real as it gets from the sounds of it. And I think you have guys who are risking stuff coming and playing this season, whether it’s Craig [Kimbrel] and his daughter [heart condition] or Anthony [Rizzo] and Jon [Lester] with their [cancer] history.

“You’re paying respect to them and doing your teammate justice by not being the one to kind of go out,” Kipnis added. “It’s one of those years where, hey, you’ve got to buckle down and stay the course. I think everybody’s going through it, so you don’t want to be the one that kind of screws this one up.

The Cubs’ 10-2 start to a 60-game season seems to further incentivize that discipline — some players in recent days even suggesting the discipline in following the protocols has carried into the professionalism on the field.

It’s impossible to know if any of it will be enough for the Cubs to keep their moving bubble secure, much less whether the two outbreaks that MLB seems to have withstood will provide the significant enough wakeup call that MLB and team officials have suggested.

“The vast, vast majority of everyone involved in this enterprise, the players and staff, are doing a solid job so far in making a lot of sacrifices,” Epstein said. “And we just have to get everybody on board. And hopefully these two outbreaks are enough to get everyone to the point where we have essentially perfect execution going forward, because that’s largely what it will take.”


Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs' David Ross defends Javier Báez, doesn't 'nitpick' baserunning lapse

Cubs shortstop Javier Báez recognizes he should have run out of the batter’s box.

“It was my mistake,” Báez said after Wednesday’s 6-1 Cubs win over the Royals. “I thought that ball was foul.”

With two on and no out in the fourth inning Wednesday, Báez hit a towering pop fly down the right field foul line. He hesitated in the batter’s box for a few moments, leaving shortly before the ball dropped in fair just inside the line.

“I kind of lost it, but the wind started bringing it back,” Báez said. “Even [Royals catcher Salvador Pérez] was kind of surprised and he was like, ‘I think it’s gonna be fair,’ so I started running.”

Báez wound up with an RBI single, scoring Kris Bryant from second and moving Anthony Rizzo to third with no outs. He likely could have wound up at second base with a double, setting up the Cubs with two runners in scoring position and no outs. 

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The inning ended shortly after, as Willson Contreras grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, scoring Rizzo to take a 2-1 lead, and David Bote struck out two batters later. In the end, the moment didn’t hurt the Cubs, who never trailed after taking that fourth inning lead.

After the game, Cubs manager David Ross defended Báez and said he didn’t talk to him about running that ball out.

“I think that’s a really close play,” Ross said. “If I want to be the type of manager that nitpicks every little thing... These guys go out and play their butt off every single night for me and for this group. 

“If I feel like they’re dogging it, we’ll have a conversation. I feel like that’s a play that he may have assumed was foul. I think Javy’s one of the most exciting players and he plays hard every time I see him out there on the field. 

“So, I don’t have a problem with a guy that brings it every single day.”