Theo delivers again as Cubs get huge boost in shocking Jose Quintana trade with White Sox

Theo delivers again as Cubs get huge boost in shocking Jose Quintana trade with White Sox

Cubs president Theo Epstein didn't hide his frustrations with an underachieving team hovering around .500, subtly calling out manager Joe Maddon in on-the-record group interviews, saying how the clubhouse didn't play with enough edge and the answers would realistically have to come from the 25 guys already in the room.

But "The World's Greatest Leader" — Fortune magazine's call — doesn't view things in absolutes. Epstein is always thinking three-dimensionally, analyzing the situation from 30,000 feet and never ruling anything out. Even when it looked like the organization-wide Cubbie envy would stop the White Sox from dealing one of their success stories to the North Side.

In a season where Epstein had already tried so many different forms of shock therapy with the defending World Series champs, the Cubs acquired Jose Quintana in Thursday's stunning crosstown trade with the White Sox, trying to jumpstart a 43-45 team out of the All-Star break while still building their rotation for the future.

This is the price for a frontline starter, even one with a career losing record (50-54) and a 4.49 ERA this season: stud outfielder Eloy Jimenez; 100-mph right-hander Dylan Cease; plus Class-A infielders Matt Rose and Bryant Flete.

But all those prospects are years away from Wrigley Field, if they ever make it at all. Even Jimenez, a blue-chip talent with the size, approach and right-handed swing that reminded the Cubs of a young Kris Bryant, hadn't made it to the Double-A level yet.

Quintana alone won't fix the Cubs. It's not like he will help them hit with runners in scoring position or tighten up the defense or heal all the nagging injuries that have contributed to the win-one, lose-one inconsistencies.

This does jolt the clubhouse, change the vibe around the team and give the 2017 Cubs an All-Star level pitcher for 14-ish starts.

[MORE: Why the Quintana trade makes perfect sense for everybody involved]

This is also insurance against Jake Arrieta and John Lackey leaving after this season. The Cubs dreaded the idea of having to replace at least 40 percent of their rotation this winter, knowing agents and other teams would sense the desperation.

As an added bonus, the Cubs will keep Quintana away from the Milwaukee Brewers, the first-place team they trail by 5.5 games in a National League Central race that just got a lot more interesting.

Ultimately, this is still a play for the future, with Quintana under club control through 2020 and the Cubs betting on his medical outlook and sturdy, reliable performance (at least 32 starts and 200 innings in each of the last four seasons).

Jimenez and Cease might become stars on the South Side as the White Sox methodically undergo a full-scale rebuild. But the Cubs are dealing from a surplus of position players and operating under the belief that young pitching goes poof.

The Cubs used money saved from Kyle Schwarber's below-slot deal in the 2014 draft to give Cease a seven-figure bonus and supervise his recovery from Tommy John surgery, hoping the volume/risk-management approach would yield some trade chips and/or the homegrown starting pitcher that has eluded the Epstein administration.

It's the same playbook the Cubs used in last summer's blockbuster "If not now, when?" trade with the New York Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. And the winter-meetings deal with the Kansas City Royals for All-Star closer Wade Davis. Except Quintana is viewed as a long-term building block for the next great team in Wrigleyville, not a mercenary or a one-year guarantee.

The rush of adrenaline will eventually wear off after Quintana's arrival, and the Cubs will find out if those answers really will come from within and when this World Series hangover will finally end.

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

They began play Sunday night with a chance to sweep their division rivals in St. Louis and sitting in first place in the National League Central, percentage points up on the Milwaukee Brewers. A +100 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157) and Boston Red Sox (+102) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-12 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

Cubs optimistic Javy Baez avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

Cubs optimistic Javy Baez avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

ST. LOUIS — Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

The team announced Javy Baez has a left elbow contusion after taking a 90 mph fastball off it in the third inning of Sunday night's game. Baez will still undergo X-rays to be sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but for now, it looks as if he has avoided serious injury.

Still, this is not what the Cubs wanted to see.

The Cubs entered play Sunday night having gone 24-12 since getting swept out of St. Louis in the first weekend of May. They were feeling good about themselves, starting to get their mojo back and playing more like the team everybody expected.

And then Baez took a fastball off the left elbow.

After a couple minute delay, Baez was led off the field and Addison Russell came in off the bench to replace him at first base.

The 25-year-old was in the midst of a breakout season for the Cubs, sitting 5th in the National League with 46 RBI and on pace for a near 30-30 seaosn (33 homers, 29 stolen bases). 

He had slowed a bit (.175 average, .502 OPS in June) but still gives the Cubs so much energy and versatility on a daily basis with his ability to move around the infield and lineup.

If the Cubs are going to be without Baez for any length of time, it could be a huge blow to a team that was just hitting its stride.