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.”

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

No momentum yet on potential Cubs-Zobrist reunion

SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein's front office has a lot of difficult decisions to make this winter, but Ben Zobrist has yet to come up with his own tough answers.

The 2016 World Series MVP is currently a free agent after wrapping up his four-year deal with the Cubs. He played a major role on the team in September following a four-month absence to deal with a family matter. 

Zobrist, 38, said at the end of the season that he was unsure if he would call it quits after an impressive career or return for another season on the diamond. More than two months since he last put on a uniform, he still has not reached an answer:

If he does play another season, it would have to be in the right situation for his family. He's made enough money in his career and accomplished plenty — including hoisting a couple championship trophies — but he clearly still had the drive and desire to play, as he said in his September return.

The Cubs figure to be on the short list of teams that would make sense for Zobrist given the mutual familiarity, a home in Chicago and how the entire organization supported him as he stepped away from the team to address his personal life.

It would seem to fit from the Cubs' perspective as well, since they talked all season long about how they missed Zobrist's professional at-bats and his presence inside the clubhouse. 

But there is no traction on the reunion front at the moment.

"I haven't talked to him recently," Epstein said Monday. "I've talked to him since the season ended, but it was more just checking in on his family. As far as baseball, he hadn't made a decision at that point. He was gonna wait a while before deciding what to do. He left open the possibility, but that was it."

The Cubs have an avenue for playing time next season at second base and potentially in the outfield for Zobrist and they are currently searching for leadoff options. He proved he can still play at his advanced age by hitting .284/.388/.377 in September after months away from the game. He isn't an everyday guy anymore, but can still provide value as a role player.

If Zobrist decides to give it one more go, the price would have to be right for the financially-hamstrung Cubs, but a reunion would make a lot of sense for both sides.

Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras


Angels' search for catching help could lead them to Willson Contreras

Could we see a Willson Contreras-Joe Maddon reunion in Los Angeles?

According to Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times, the Angels are “heavily engaged in the catcher market,” and are having “active conversations with two teams” regarding a trade for a catcher.

Torres didn’t specifically mention Contreras, but he’s one of several Cubs who have been linked to trade rumors this offseason. The Cubs aren’t looking to enter another all-out rebuild, but they’re keeping the future of the organization in mind following a disappointing 84-win season.

The Cubs farm system has grown barren of impact talent. They’ve struggled to develop big-league starting pitching under team president Theo Epstein. Their payroll is projected to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second straight season, meaning they’d encounter a 30 percent luxury tax on their overages and see their draft position drop 10 spots, should they exceed the $208 million threshold by $40 million or more.

Trading Contreras — who’s projected to make $4.5 million via arbitration next season — won’t solve the financial problem. However, trading him could net the Cubs the type of blue-chip prospects they desperately need to replenish their farm system.

Contreras is also under team control through 2022, so there’s not a huge rush to deal the two-time All-Star. But if the Cubs sense he’s unlikely to sign a contract extension now or in the future, they must do their due diligence on him and see what they could acquire in a potential trade. The same is true for Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber.

The Angels have one top 100 prospect, (outfielder Jo Adell — No. 5 overall), according to MLB Pipeline, so what Los Angeles could offer the Cubs is questionable. Epstein and Co. won’t trade their backstop for the sake of doing so, especially if they deem any offers to be unsatisfactory.  

Contreras hit .272/.355/.533 with 24 home runs and 64 RBIs last season. He’d be a major addition for the Angels, whose catchers posted a combined .221/.293/.344 slash line with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs. The 27-year-old also has a special bond with former Cubs/current Angels manager Joe Maddon.

Contreras posted a heartfelt good-bye to Maddon on Instagram after the Cubs announced they weren’t retaining the manager for 2020. Contreras later commissioned a painting of he and Maddon as a gift for his former skipper.

Monday, Maddon said it’s “weird” to hear Bryant and Contreras mentioned in trade rumors, adding that he likes both players. 

The Angels aren't definitively linked to Contreras and Epstein recently advised to take rumors with a "mouthful of salt." But considering the Angels are reportedly seeking a catching upgrade, it won't be a surprise to see that change soon.