Cubs

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.”

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.