Cubs

Reminders why Cubs will put trade-deadline focus on pitching

Reminders why Cubs will put trade-deadline focus on pitching

Sometimes, a cramp is just a cramp. The Cubs fully expect Jason Hammel to make his next start this weekend against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field. Hammel’s early exit on Memorial Day didn’t signify the leg issues that contributed to his second-half fade last season or force Theo Epstein’s front office into scramble mode with the rotation.

And then came the bullet point out of Jon Lester’s 2-1 complete-game victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday: Closer Hector Rondon had been unavailable for the ninth inning and needed the night off to rest a stiff back.

The Cubs are still bracing for all these different possibilities, because they know pitching depth is an organizational weakness and say they have the resources to make a splash at the trade deadline. Kyle Schwarber’s devastating outfield collision during the first week of the season also punctured whatever air of invincibility existed around this team.

But where the Cubs could realign their versatile position players and compensate for the loss of Schwarber — who had a follow-up examination for his surgically repaired left knee on Tuesday in Dallas — there is no obvious or easy solution on the pitching side.

“You cross your fingers whenever someone goes down,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “and hope you get the best news possible from the trainers after the game.

“Sometimes you get the worst news, and it is humbling, because you realize that you’re always that injury — or that text from your trainer — away from a bad evening and potentially having to change your roster around.

“It’s always a wake-up call. It’s why you (always) try to stay pretty even-keeled, know what’s ahead of you and try to make sure you’re always ready at every position. If you have to go make a move, you know that you have your (preference) list in place and you know what phone calls you have to make.”

Hammel — who’s pitching like a first-half All-Star again (6-1, 2.08 ERA) — threw only 39 pitches against the Dodgers on Monday before the Cubs bullpen combined for seven perfect innings and finished off the one-hitter.

That draining performance — plus a stacked left-handed Los Angeles lineup and Jake Arrieta’s pitch count (107) — led manager Joe Maddon to turn a zero-zero eighth-inning game over to lefty Clayton Richard on Tuesday at Wrigley Field. Richard allowed three straight hits and didn’t get an out in an eventual 5-0 loss that snapped a streak where the Cubs had won Arrieta’s last 23 regular-season starts.

Hoyer gave Richard (0-1, 8.00 ERA) a vote of confidence and predicted the left-hander will rediscover his sinker and start generating groundballs: “He did it in the playoffs last year. We know he can do it again.” Hoyer also acknowledged the Cubs will be in the market for more bullpen help.

“Our pitching staff has been excellent so far, but you always need a lot of pitching to get through the entire season,” Hoyer said. “We expect that will be something we’ll have to continue to address throughout the year.”

So get used to two full months of trade speculation about the team with the best record in baseball (36-15) and a century-and-counting championship drought. But also remember when those jump-the-market deals for Arrieta/Pedro Strop and Addison Russell happened with the Baltimore Orioles (Scott Feldman) and Oakland A’s (Jeff Samardzija). “We made early deals two years in a row and those were in early July — this is June 1,” Hoyer said. “We’re obviously doing our due diligence, working hard to scout the players that may be available. But it is still exceptionally early in the trade season for anything.

“We’re in the process of looking at who might be traded and scouting those guys. But certainly we’re still in the part of the season where reinforcements come from within.”

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.