Jon Lester knows Cubs clubhouse could use trade-deadline boost, but will front office deliver?

Jon Lester knows Cubs clubhouse could use trade-deadline boost, but will front office deliver?

The July 31 trade deadline looks like the next last resort for a 41-42 Cubs team that already promoted a top prospect (Ian Happ), experimented with the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time (Anthony Rizzo), demoted a World Series legend to Triple-A Iowa (Kyle Schwarber) and dumped a mouthy veteran catcher (Miguel Montero), desperately trying to weather injuries and shake up the defending World Series champs.

“You can always use a boost,” Jon Lester said after a Fourth of July loss to the Tampa Bay Rays left him shrugging his shoulders in the Wrigley Field interview room, running low on answers to the same state-of-the-team questions. “That’s always a positive in a clubhouse.”

Chris Archer is the one who got away, traded to the Rays after the 2011 season and blossoming into exactly the kind of top-of-the-rotation starter the Cubs need now. Except the Rays (44-41) have a better record than the Cubs, the wild-card safety net that doesn’t exist in a top-heavy National League and a team-friendly deal that could keep Archer in a Tampa Bay uniform through 2021.

So now isn’t the time to dream about Archer pitching on the North Side. This 6-5 game didn’t feel all that close, even as the crowd of 42,046 got loud late and the Cubs made Rays closer Alex Colome throw 38 pitches in the ninth inning, trying to protect a three-run lead and leaving two runners stranded when Jason Heyward harmlessly flied out to left field to end it.

Theo Epstein’s baseball-operations group will keep observing and gathering intelligence, hoping that: activating Heyward and Ben Zobrist from the disabled list will stabilize the team; resetting Schwarber in the minors will eventually unleash all his natural power; and slotting Kyle Hendricks in after the All-Star break will strengthen the rotation.

The Cubs are still only running 3.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in a bad division. But this flat-lining team doesn’t scream out for rental players or inspire confidence that Epstein will go all-in to win a bidding war for a frontline starter.

“Any time that the front office believes – ‘Hey, this piece will help us get over that hump’ – that’s always a boost to the clubhouse,” Lester said. “Like I said last year when we were rolling: ‘If we don’t make a move, we feel good about ourselves. If we make a move, we still feel good about ourselves.’ 

“You look around in that clubhouse, you can point in any different direction and say: ‘Really? We haven’t gotten hot? We haven’t gotten going?’ We do two or three or four games in a row and then it’s kind of like we go the other way for two or three or four games.

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“It’s time to be paid up on that. It’s time to get some guys hot. It’s time to get some guys on the mound that just roll. We haven’t had that.”

Where Archer (7-5, 3.95 ERA) put together a quality start that would have looked excellent with some good defense behind him, Lester (5-5, 3.94 ERA) put his team in a 6-1 hole in the fourth inning. That’s when Archer did his damage, showing bunt on a two-strike count, pulling his bat back and knocking his first big-league hit into right-center field for an RBI single.

The reality for the Cubs is that these are system-wide issues. One player alone won’t walk into the clubhouse and change the vibes, diversify the offense, fortify the rotation and tighten up the defense.     

“Eight groundballs,” said Lester, who gave up nine hits in five innings and allowed five earned runs. “I hate to go back to it. I don’t want to sound like a broken record. I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses. But it just seems like balls are kind of getting out of guys’ reach.

“Honestly, I feel like as a starting staff, as a bullpen, when we do make mistakes, we pay for it. Whereas last year, I felt like when we made mistakes, guys popped ‘em up, for whatever reason.

“I don’t want to make excuses for us as a staff and as a unit and sound like we’re pointing fingers at other things. But as a starting staff, you need to get away with mistakes sometimes.

“That’s the difference between a good and a bad season sometimes. The 2-0 heater that you throw down and away gets hit to Zo at second as opposed to gets hit into right.

“One little thing can kind of change the course of a start, the course of a season.”

The Cubs have a 38-year-old starting pitcher lined up for Wednesday afternoon, and any sense of momentum against the Rays would begin with John Lackey, who has nine losses, a 5.24 ERA and a major-league leading 24 home runs allowed.

The Cubs have only one guaranteed All-Star in Wade Davis, who wasn’t even on last year’s World Series winner and is now closing for a team that’s trailed in 63 of 83 games so far this season.

Is help on the way? Lester understands this answer to the big-picture question about the trade deadline: “There’s always room for improvement.”

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

The bullpen's rough stretch continues as Cubs blow two saves in series opener

Sound the alarm, the Cubs’ bullpen issues are back. 

Friday afternoon’s culprits were Brad Brach and Steve Cishek, who together allowed three earned runs on five hits over 2.2 innings of work in the Cubs’ 6-5 loss. It was the second blown save of the season for both pitchers. 

“I was locked in today, I really was,” Cishek said. “It was just a lack of execution. I’m not going to make any excuses.” 

After spending much of the last six weeks being one of baseball’s most reliable groups, the Cubs’ bullpen has hit a rough patch of late. Over the last two weeks, only the Red Sox have more blown saves than Chicago. In that span they rank 21st in ERA, 16th in FIP, and most foreboding of all, 4th in BB%. 

“The last couple times around we’ve had shorter outings from our starters, and I think that’s kind of caused us to use them more recently,” Joe Maddon said. “But they’re fine. They’re fine. It’s just one of those days, man.” 

It’s true that the Cubs’ bullpen is still relatively fresh; they’ve pitched 168.2 innings in 2019, more than only eight other teams. Over the last two weeks, however, they’ve pitched 48.2 innings - which is 8th most in the league. They came into Friday’s game shorthanded, as Maddon noted that they were looking to avoid using Brandon Kintzler, Carl Edwards Jr., Tyler Chatwood, and Kyle Ryan. 

“[Cishek] probably didn’t have a full tank,” Maddon said. “Probably ¾ maybe. So the stuff wasn’t as clean or crisp.”

Cishek declined to comment about how energy he felt he had on Friday. Only Tyler Chatwood has thrown more relief innings than Cishek over the last week, and both Chatwood and Kintzler rank among the top-20 most-used relievers going back to mid-May. 

“Those guys always get it done,” Kyle Hendricks said. “They’ve been being used a lot in the last few days, so they can’t come in every time and get the job done. But they’re making their pitches, and attacking, and there’s nothing more you can ask for. We know they’re going to be there for us, and they have been all year.”

Late innings have been especially difficult to navigate over the last few series. After the two blown saves today, the Cubs are now 9-for-20 in save situations on the year. There are internal reinforcements coming, though, as Pedro Strop is close to returning from his hamstring injury. 

“It’s more experienced guys coming back into the fold,” Maddon said. “Guys that have done that.

“When Strop comes back, then all these guys get pushed back. It’s just lengthens your bullpen. It lengthens it. By having him there, with what he’s able to do in the last inning or two. Stropy will lengthen us out.”

And while the noise to go get another proven reliever grows, and the date that signing Craig Kimbrel without losing a draft pick nears, the Cubs are confident that a few rough outings from a good group, going through a tough stretch, is no reason to panic. 

“I still think we’re in a good spot,” Cishek said. “As the fans ride the roller coaster, we do too. There’s ups and downs throughout the long season. We started off slow, then we rode a hot streak for a long time. It’s going to happen again, we’re going to be fine.”

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call


Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

There’s no one reason that you could point to that explains why the Cubs have gone 27-12 since their horrid first road trip. You could point to Javy Baéz’s continuous star turn, or the rotation exceeding even the loftiest expectations so far. You could point to Kris Bryant’s healthy shoulder, or Brandon Kintzler’s sinker -- like plenty of people have -- and you’d be right. What’s gone under-discussed, at least in the eyes of some, is just how good the Cubs’ outfield defense has been.

“Who doesn’t love defense?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier in the week. “This group here, when everyone’s on the field and the really good defenders are out there, it’s as tight as I’ve had. The difference being I think is that the outfield defense has gotten better in the last couple years here.”

The numbers back it up. MLB keeps a statistic called Outs Above Average (OAA) that tries to convey just how good an outfielder is vs. replacement level. For the Cubs, Albert Almora is doing much of the heavy lifting, as the center fielder is worth 4 OOA -- good for 4th best in baseball -- on his own. Jason Heyward is holding is own with 2 OOA so far, and Kyle Schwarber continues to struggle (-2 OOA). As a team, here’s how many Outs Above Average the Cubs have been worth since they started keeping track in 2016:

2016: 22 (2nd)
2017: - 7 (20th)
2018: 0 (14th)
2019, so far: 4 (6th)

“I think we’ve got a lot of great athletes on our team,” Almora said. “We’re playmakers and I think we have a great coaching staff that puts us in the right spots.”

Another useful metric that Statcast keeps track of is called Directional OOA. Basically, MLB designates six directions (front right/middle/left and back right/middle/left) and gauges which direction certain teams and fielders are best at running. Almora, at least this year, has been strongest running in and left:

That was on display yet again on Friday, when Almora broke in and left to rob Derek Dietrich in the second inning:

When asked, Almora admitted that he was surprised to learn that, instead thinking that he was better in and to the right. He’s not wrong, either: in each of the previous three seasons, Almora’s finished with the most OOA coming in and to the right.

“I think most [routes] are pretty instinctual to me,” he said. “I kind of sell out when it’s a little runner. Sometimes I dive and don’t get to it because in my mind I’m programmed to where, if it’s hit to me, I’ve got to catch it.”

Heyward, on the other hand, has been stronger to his right his year:

“I just think it’s about your position” Heyward added. “You can say someone is really good at one thing, but if they don’t get as many plays to this way, or that way, you don’t really know.

One interesting wrinkle about the Cubs’ outfield is that neither Schwarber, Almora or Heyward have been worth an Out Above Average going straight backwards, and generally haven’t been great going backwards in any direction. One explanation? Between an unforgiving brick wall and the outward-jetting net that sits on top of it, robbing homers basically isn’t possible at Wrigley. Knowing that drastically changes the read on fly balls.

“You know you’re not going to go back as hard,” Heyward said. “If someone hits the ball over your head, most likely it’s going to be a double if it’s off the wall. There’s definitely differences between here and and the next place.”

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