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.”

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

Why Cubs core's desire to sign extensions might not matter anymore

The day after Kris Bryant suggested that first-time fatherhood and the dramatic reality of world events have changed how he looks at his future with the Cubs, general manager Jed Hoyer outlined why it might be all but moot.

Setting aside the fact that the Cubs aren’t focusing on contract extensions with anyone at this time of health and economic turmoil, the volatility and unpredictability of a raging COVID-19 pandemic in this country and its economic fallout have thrown even mid-range and long-term roster plans into question.

“This is without question the most difficult time we’ve ever had as far as projecting those things,” Hoyer said. “All season in projecting this year, you weren’t sure how many games we were going to get in. Projecting next season obviously has challenges, and who knows where the country’s going to be and the economy’s going to be.”

Bryant, a three-time All-Star and former MVP, is eligible for free agency after next season. He and the club have not engaged in extension talks for three years. And those gained little traction while it has looked increasingly likely since then that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, would eventually take his star client to market — making Bryant a widely circulated name in trade talks all winter.

MORE: Scott Boras: Why Kris Bryant's free agency won't be impacted by economic crisis

The Cubs instead focused last winter on talks with All-Star shortstop Javy Báez, making “good” or little progress depending on which side you talked to on a given day — until the pandemic shut down everything in March.

Báez, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are both also eligible for free agency after next season, with All-Star catcher Willson Contreras right behind them a year later.

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None has a multiyear contract, and exactly what the Cubs are willing to do about that even if MLB pulls off its 60-game plan this year is hard for even the team’s front office executives to know without knowing how hard the pandemic will continue to hammer America’s health and financial well-being into the winter and next year.

Even with a vaccine and treatments by then, what will job markets look like? The economy at large? The economy of sports? Will anyone want to gather with 40,000 others in a stadium to watch a game anytime soon?

And even if anyone could answer all those questions, who can be sure how the domino effect will impact salary markets for athletes?

“There’s no doubt that forecasting going forward is now much more challenging from a financial standpoint,” Hoyer said. “But that’s league-wide. Anyone that says they have a feel for where the nation’s economy and where the pandemic is come next April is lying.”

The Cubs front office already was in a tenuous place financially, its payroll budget stretched past its limit and a threat to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for a second consecutive season.

And after a quick playoff exit in 2018 followed by the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2019, every player on the roster was in play for a possible trade over the winter — and even more so at this season’s trade deadline without a strong start to the season.

Now what?

For starters, forget about dumping short-term assets or big contracts for anything of value from somebody’s farm system. Even if baseball can get to this year’s Aug. 31 trade deadline with a league intact and playing, nobody is predicting more than small level trades at that point — certainly not anything close to a blockbuster.

After that, it may not get any clearer for the sport in general, much less the Cubs with their roster and contract dilemmas.

“We have a lot of conversations about it internally, both within the baseball side and then with the business side as well,” Hoyer said. “But it’s going to take a long time and probably some sort of macro things happening for us to really have a good feel for where we’re going to be in ’21 and beyond.”


Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Cubs' GM Jed Hoyer: Everyone in MLB has to take COVID-19 'equally' serious

Veteran umpire Joe West made waves Tuesday downplaying the severity of COVID-19 in an interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. 

“I don’t believe in my heart that all these deaths have been from the coronavirus," West said. "I believe it may have contributed to some of the deaths.”

As far as the Cubs are concerned, those comments don’t represent how to treat the virus. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure everyone treats it with equal severity.

“That’s one of the things we've really tried internally to instill in our players and our coaches,” Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Tuesday, “[that] everyone here has to take it equally [serious].”

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Hoyer noted like the world, MLB isn’t immune to people having different viewpoints on the virus — those who show concern and those who don’t. This echoes comments made by manager David Ross earlier on Tuesday, and Hoyer said those he’s talked to with the Cubs don’t feel the same way as West.

The Cubs had an up close and personal look at pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s battle with COVID-19 during baseball’s shutdown. It took the 38-year-old former big leaguer 30 harrowing days to test negative, and in the past week many Cubs have said watching him go through that hit home. 

“When you get a 38-year-old guy in wonderful health and he talks about his challenges with it,” Hoyer said, “I think that it takes away some of those different viewpoints.”

To ensure everyone stays safe and puts the league in the best position to complete a season, MLB needs strict adherence to its protocols.

“I think that's one of our goals and one of the things that we feel is vital is that we have to make sure everyone views this the same way, because we can't have a subset of people within our group that don't view it with the same severity,” Hoyer said.

“That’s not gonna work. We're not gonna be successful."