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.”

Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central


Reds acquisition of Sonny Gray is the latest notable addition to the NL Central

The NL Central keeps getting better this offseason.

According to multiple reports, the Reds have traded for pitcher Sonny Gray from the Yankees.

The Reds have been active this offseason and adding a former all-star to their rotation would be another big step towards turning the Reds into contenders in what is shaping up to be a very tough NL Central in 2019. They already added Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp in a blockbuster deal with the Dodgers.

Gray is 29 and has a career ERA of 3.66, but isn't coming off a good year. With the Yankees he had a 4.90 ERA, the second-highest of his career, and didn't pitch in the postseason. The last time Gray had a bad year, he bounced back. Gray had a 5.69 ERA in 2016, the year after his breakout all-star campaign in 2015, but was solid in 2017 with the A's and Yankees.

Coming off a 95-loss season, the Reds had a long way to go, but look to be improved on paper with those additions.

Elsewhere in the division, the Cardinals already added Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller and the defending division champion Brewers added marquee free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Meanwhile, it has been mostly crickets for the Cubs this offseason. Owner Tom Ricketts recently defended the team's financial situation, which has led to the team appearing to be less aggressive this winter.

It looks like the Cubs will face increased competition in the division this season. Will that force the team's hand to be more aggressive before spring training?

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Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Cole Hamels is healthy and ready to be the ace of the 2019 Cubs

Ask any Cubs player about 2019 and it's hard not to notice the urgency in their voice. 

After just about the least-enjoyable summer that 95 wins and a playoff appearance can buy, the normal winter platitudes that they tend to reel off have taken on additional weight. Rosters with as much potential as the Cubs don't come around often, and most of those players aren't going to get any cheaper down the road. Things can change quickly in baseball. 

Perhaps no one on the Cubs knows this quite like Cole Hamels, a World Series champion who has been a part of multiple different playoff-caliber rosters. Hamels revived his career after a disappointing tenure in Texas ended with a late-July trade, posting a 2.36 ERA over 76 innings on the North Side. The lefty went 4-0 with a 0.78 ERA in his first five games here (all of which they won), a far cry from the dreadful performances he was putting up with the Rangers. Sometimes a change of scenery is needed, but getting healthy always helps too. 

"I had a really tough time with the oblique injury I had two years ago and trying to get my mechanics back on track," Hamels said. "I just don’t think I was able to identify and correct what was going on. I was fighting it the whole season, until I kind of looked at a little bit deeper film and then really just made some more drastic changes, and went with it."

His oblique injury in 2017 derailed Hamels for the better part of a calendar year. The strain originally landed him on the 15-day DL, but he actually ended up missing eight weeks of games. In the 19 starts after, Hamels posted a 4.42 FIP with a 1.22 WHIP, walking over three batters per nine innings. He admitted to pitching through lingering discomfort at times, instead choosing to try and grit through a game - even if that meant ignoring how it would derail his healing process. As a result, the start of 2018 didn't treat him much better. It wasn't until a longer-than-usual film study with the Cubs that Hamels found his fix. 

"Basically, I was coming out of my whole front side," he added. "My hips - you know I was really landing open. I don’t do that - I’m a closed-off guy that really kind of hides the ball. It also maintains my distance down the mound and allows me to have a little bit more velocity. So I think that was really the big change and what I’ve been focusing on this offseason." 

Looking at the numbers, the adjustment is clear as day:

Adding three miles an hour to your fastball, midseason, is pretty significant. The reinvention of his fastball was one of the driving forces behind his turnaround last season, and there's no reason to believe Hamels -- now with a full offseason of healthy workouts under his belt -- can't be that type of pitcher for an entire season. If he can, the Lester-Hamels-Darvish rotation the Cubs dreamed of might be one step closer to fruition. 

As it stands now, however, there are *plenty* of questions about the Cubs' rotation. Their youngest starter is 29. Lester had his worst season in almost a decade and the year-by-year trends don't look great. Health AND regression have dogged Yu Darvish. Jose Quintana's been fine, but is a 4.05 FIP and 1.25 WHIP in 258 innings worth losing Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease?

"I think we all know how to get ready for a game and what’s expected out of us," Hamels said. "We know how to get good results and if we have a bad game we have guys that will pick of the pieces the next day and that’s comforting. I don’t think there are going to be too many bad stretches because we have guys that are going to be able to take care of business and stop streaks and we’re going to see some pretty fun winning streaks because of what we’re going to be doing as a pitching staff." 

Being an ace certainly wouldn't hurt, but if Hamels wants to live up to the $20 million option the Cubs picked up, he'll need to fill a larger void as one of the team's leaders. ("I think in general, MLB is doing pretty well for themselves," he replied when asked if the decision financially hamstrings the Cubs. "So I don’t necessarily buy it as much, but I understand people have to work within the certain system that they set.") Though this is still a tightly-knit clubhouse, many players and coaches admitted that there needs to be a new approach to leadership in 2019. Hamels, a World Series MVP and four-time All Star, fits the bill. It can be uncomfortable for players of even his pedigree to come into a new team and immediately be a leader, and Hamels knows how far a full spring around the same group of guys will go towards fixing that. 

"I’m 35, I’ve been in this game a long time, so I think that’s where I need to be. That’s sort of the role that’s directed towards you if you’ve played the game long enough. That’s kind of where you fit. I understand that, I’ve had a couple years to really do what I need to do in order to be that leader, and I guess now that means be a little more vocal instead of just letting the play out on the field be the leader."