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.”

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

A stellar Jon Lester outing gives the Cubs more than just a win

It's been a tale of two halves for the Cubs veteran Jon Lester, who after a sparkling first half of baseball that saw him win 12 games with a 2.58 ERA, has looked nothing like a 2018 All-Star. Prior to Thursday's start, Lester had posted a 10.32 ERA, allowed 4 or more runs in 4 of his 5 most recent starts, and had yet to win a game in the second of the season. 

The 34-year-old veteran flipped the script Thursday night, throwing 6-shutout innings while striking out 8 Pirate batters in the Cubs 1-0 win in Pittsburgh. Lester surrendered only 5 hits and baffled the Pirates all-night, finally busting out of his slump and giving the Cubs his 2nd quality start since the All-Star break. 

Lester attacked the bottom portion of the strike zone all night with his fastball, which topped out at 93 mph, generating 4 whiffs with his heater. Over the last month, Lester has said he's felt he can't quite execute his "out" pitches, explaining that when he has a hitter set up for a strikeout he hasn't been able to throw the ball effectively in those moments. 

And while Lester walked off the mound after the 6th inning amassing 8 punch outs, the veteran starter never looked like he was trying to strike out batters. He just continued to dot the corners, occasionally raise the eye-level of the batter with an elevated heater, and threw his secondary pitches just enough to keep the Pittsburgh batters uncomfortable at the plate. 

The Cubs offense once again struggled, facing Ivan Nova who has won four his last five starts against the Cubs, but Ian Happ's solo shot in the 4th inning was enough run support for Lester to push the Cubs to 20 games over .500. But the biggest takeaway from Thursday night's win isn't that the Cubs came out on top, it's that Jon Lester returning to form gives this Chicago rotation something they've lacked seemingly this entire season. 

Stability at the front of the rotation. 

With Cole Hamels impressive three starts in a Cub uniform and Kyle Hendricks finally figuring out his issues on the mound, if Jon Lester can replicate Thursday's performance throughout the rest of the season, the Cubs rotation may finally turn into the strength many thought it could be before the season started. At the very least, Lester showed that whatever he's been working through over the last month of baseball is fixable. 

It's only one start in a string of poor outings for Lester, and while The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma did find some positives in his starts prior to Thursday's big win, Lester will have to show he can maintain this level of pitching through the remainder of this season. But I think our own Tony Andracki put it best tonight on Twitter. 

With the Cubs pitchers finally starting to perform to their expected level, and the return of Yu Darvish looking closer each day, it could be the Cubs starting pitching that carries through the rest of the season. 

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Joe Maddon speaks out on Wednesday night's Marlins-Braves brawl

Much has been made about Wednesday night's brawl between the Marlins and Braves, which started when Braves young star Ronald Acuna was nailed in the elbow with a 99 mph fastball from Jose Urena. The strangest part of the whole situation was that it seemed like Urena was unprovoked by Acuna or any of the Braves players prior to plunking the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball.  

The ever wise Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was asked about the incident prior to Thursday's game, making it clear he felt plays like these needed to leave the game entirely. 

It was announced Thursday afternoon that Urena would be suspended just 6 games for intentionally throwing Acuna, which means the Marlins starter will likely only miss one game for trying to hurt Acuna. The good news is that Acuna did not sustain any serious injuries, but Joe Maddon is right there is no reason for people to be hurling nearly triple-digit fastballs at players. Whether provoked or not, intentionally throwing at players is something that needs to be phased out of the game, and its safe to assume Maddon would agree.