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.”