Cubs

Swept out of St. Louis, Cubs waiting for trade market to accelerate

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Swept out of St. Louis, Cubs waiting for trade market to accelerate

ST. LOUIS — This isn’t fantasy baseball, and there aren’t many teams like the 2012-14 Cubs out there hanging “For Sale” signs right now.

Even if the Cubs wanted to overreact to getting swept out of Busch Stadium after Sunday night’s 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals — which finally ended at 12:05 Monday morning — they probably couldn’t. They still have to be patient after sitting through a tornado watch, two rain delays that lasted two hours and 29 minutes combined and a season-high five-game losing streak. 

But the Cubs (39-35) will eventually have to do something to close the gap on their biggest rivals and keep playing meaningful games into September. Setting aside the legitimate questions about how much financial flexibility they will have, the second wild card already changed the calculus for the July 31 trade deadline.

“There’s a chance this is one of the tightest markets we’ve ever seen,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We’re going to have to be creative. A lot of teams will have to be creative, because there’s not going to be a lot of sellers. We keep on assuming that the next four or five weeks will shake some of that out, but it may not.”

[MORE: Cubs: Pedro Strop accepts apology from Bob Costas]

It’s fun to play connect the dots with Cubs hitters and New York Mets pitchers, which will happen during the three-game series that begins Tuesday night at Citi Field.  

You can wonder about which players to prioritize from the Oakland A’s — left-hander Scott Kazmir or super-utility guy Ben Zobrist? — when the Cubs don’t have a clear No. 5 starter and their lineup generated only four runs in 28 innings over the weekend, going 2-for-27 with men in scoring position against the Cardinals (51-24).

“They’ve beaten us with their experience,” manager Joe Maddon said. “They come up with the hit, we don’t. They make the pitch, we don’t.

“We’ve blinked and they haven’t. That’s what it’s really come down to.”

Go ahead and debate over Twitter the prospects you would give up in a deal. But all that won’t change the illusion of contention when only three teams entered Monday more than eight games back in the wild-card race: 

The Milwaukee Brewers fired manager Ron Roenicke in early May and have sunk to 19 games under .500. But would they trade within the division and with their rivals 90 miles south?  

[RELATED: Cubs get reinforcement with Neil Ramirez back in bullpen]

The Miami Marlins fired manager Mike Redmond in the middle of May and just lost superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton for at least a month with a broken bone in his wrist. Good luck trying to guess what happens next on that reality show.

Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg resigned last week before the Philadelphia Phillies could fire him as part of the major shakeup that franchise desperately needs. Ex-Cubs executive Andy MacPhail is reportedly on the verge of being named Philadelphia’s new head of baseball operations. 

Delusional or not, teams like the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds can try to tell themselves they’re one good week away from jumping right back into this, or one good player away from being relevant. 

“You never know how that’s going to work,” Hoyer said. “Some teams might claw themselves back into the race and decide not to sell. You have to think about it creatively. You have to think about what would happen if there weren’t deals to be made, because there may not be a lot of deals out there.”

The Cubs already trail the Cardinals by 11.5 games in the National League Central. But they now have enough going for them — star manager, young blue-chip talent, veteran leadership and good clubhouse vibes — to justify the investment in the big-league team.

“It’s the same balancing act that we always go through,” Hoyer said. “This is a very important season. Every season that you’re in the race you have to take seriously, because you can’t always count on tomorrow. As much as we’re built for the future, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Get your Cubs gear right here]

“You don’t want to do anything that you’re going to look back on and say: That was hasty. But you never want to only look towards the future and ignore the fact that: Hey, this has been a really fun season with a lot of big positives. And can we improve some of the weaknesses we have to keep that going?”

Also remember the Cubs said things about the slow pace of deal-making at this time last year, just before shipping Jeff Samardzija to Oakland in the Fourth of July blockbuster that yielded Addison Russell. The Cubs also “jumped the market” in 2013, flipping Scott Feldman to the Baltimore Orioles on July 2 and remaking their pitching staff with Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.

“We’re going to have to wait awhile to see how this trade market shakes out,” Hoyer said. “But there’s a chance it’s an extreme sellers’ market with so few teams selling. And only the next 25, 30 games will tell whether more teams end up in that sellers’ column.”

The Cubs won’t be selling like crazy, the way they did the last three summers, but a lost weekend in St. Louis also showed that maybe we shouldn’t automatically assume they will be such big buyers this time.

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

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.