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.”

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Marlon Byrd discusses his suspensions for PED use and Ozzie Guillen offers a solution to the PED problem

NBC Sports Chicago

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Marlon Byrd discusses his suspensions for PED use and Ozzie Guillen offers a solution to the PED problem

Ozzie Guillen explains why he thinks Manny Machado is a better fit for the Cubs than the White Sox. Plus, Guillen and Marlon Byrd react to 19-year-old Juan Soto hitting a homer in his first at-bat with the Nationals.

Later in the show the guys debate who had the better rants in front of the media: Guillen or Byrd?

Finally, Byrd opens up about his PED suspensions, relates to the guys caught using PEDs now and Guillen offers up a solution to rid baseball of PEDs entirely.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: