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.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?


Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.


Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: