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.”