Theo Epstein doesn't see any quick fixes for Cubs on trade market

Theo Epstein doesn't see any quick fixes for Cubs on trade market

Even after this downturn, the Cubs still have a 100-win pace, almost a double-digit lead in the division and more than 20 shopping days left until the Aug. 1 trade deadline. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein doesn’t see any quick fixes or a need to overreact.

“We’re still kind of in the early innings as far as determining what we’re going to be able to do,” Epstein said before Thursday night’s makeup game against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field. “We have a feel for what we’d like to do. I think we understand the basic dynamics of the marketplace right now. But there’s going to be an element of patience involved.”

Needs and priorities can also change by the time you look up from your iPhone. The sight of manager Joe Maddon and athletic trainer PJ Mainville walking out to the mound to check on Jason Hammel in the sixth inning highlighted that point.

Hammel had just thrown two pitches to Gordon Beckham and finished off the at-bat with a four-pitch walk before leaving with cramping in his right hand and his team down 2-0 in a game that would take 11 innings and end in a 4-3 loss on Friday morning.

“I think he’s fine,” Maddon said. “I don’t anticipate anything awful.”

“I have no idea” what happened, Hammel said. “It ticks me off.”

Strengthening the rotation would be a different way to reshape a worn-out bullpen, by shortening games and creating extra rest. But it’s hard to see the upgrade if Rich Hill — the ex-Cub who used four good starts for the Boston Red Sox last season to score a one-year, $6 million deal with the Oakland A’s — is the best option out there.

“We are still looking for a starter for a couple reasons,” Epstein said. “For the long-term, because we’re just not that deep organizationally in starting pitching, and because you can’t assume health.”

It took 84 games before the Cubs finally had to use a sixth starter. That’s why Epstein felt so encouraged by Adam Warren’s spot start in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, showing the stuff — one run across five innings with six strikeouts and no walks — that helped push the Cubs toward the Starlin Castro deal with the New York Yankees.

“It’s a tough market for starting pitching,” Epstein said. “There are teams that are in probably more desperate straits for a starter that might pay a higher price than we would. But we’ll see. We’re going to pursue all avenues.”

Epstein didn’t want to put all the blame on the bullpen for 13 losses in the last 18 games. That relentless offense has been losing its identity, getting shut out for seven-plus innings by journeyman Lucas Harrell after a rain delay that lasted 90-plus minutes.

The rotation couldn’t keep up a low-2.00 ERA forever. Injuries have sapped the overall depth. The 24-games-in-24-days grind is almost over. Ideally, the Cubs would have staggered the big-league debuts of Albert Almora Jr., Willson Contreras and Jeimer Candelario a different way.

But it’s obvious the Cubs need bullpen reinforcements, whether or not the Yankees ultimately sell and break up the Big Three of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. Maddon used Kyle Hendricks — who’s not scheduled to make his next start until after the All-Star break — to throw two scoreless innings against the tanking Braves (29-57) before closer Hector Rondon blew his fourth save in his last eight chances in the ninth.

“That’s certainly an area that we would look to upgrade externally and also internally,” Epstein said. “If I had to make a prediction, I’ll say that we’re going to get some help from somebody who’s currently in the ‘pen, but not locked in yet. At least one of those guys will lock in and pitch really well. And then someone who’s not with us now — but he’s still in the organization — will come up and pitch really well.

“And then I think we’ll add. There’s a good chance that we’ll make a deal that will help us in the ‘pen as well. When things don’t go well, there’s always a rush to look outside, especially this time of year.

“It’s important, and we’re doing it. But it’s really important to remember that Trevor Cahill and Clayton Richard and Justin Grimm threw really big innings in the postseason for us last year. And they are certainly capable of doing it again.”

So the Cubs will hope Richard gets healthy (blister on his left middle finger) and back in a groove (7.30 ERA) while Grimm (5.59 ERA) works through his issues at the big-league level and maybe Carl Edwards Jr. steps forward into a prominent role.

Perhaps the Cubs can catch lighting in a bottle with Joe Nathan, a six-time All-Star closer with 377 career saves now at Double-A Tennessee, trying to come back from a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow at the age of 41.

Until the end, Maddon will put a positive spin on all this, believing it will only make the Cubs stronger.

“Of course, we’ve lost some games and things haven’t been going well,” Maddon said. “Poor us. Happens to everybody, man. I’m sorry, it just does. For anybody out there that believes it doesn’t happen to every team, you’re wrong.

“It’s just our turn. We got to fight through it. Like Winston Churchill once said: ‘When you’re going through hell, just keep on going.’”

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.”

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.

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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:


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.