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.”