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.’”

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

A messy night at Wrigley Field ends without a pitch being thrown

The NLCS rematch will have to wait another day.

Mother Nature and the power at Wrigley Field care not for your excitement about a "big series" between the Cubs and Dodgers.

Thunderstorms rolled over the North Side of Chicago, where the Dodgers ended the Cubs' postseason run 8 months ago. 

On top of that, the power at Wrigley Field was not cooperating with the lights down the right field line going out for hours during the rain delay. 

The lights came back on at one point before again going out again roughly a half hour before Monday night's game was officially called. After a delay stretching almost three hours, word finally filtered out just before 10 p.m. the game would be postponed a day.

The Cubs and Dodgers will make the game up as part of a day-night doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field with the first game starting at 12:05 p.m. and the second at the regularly scheduled time of 7:05 p.m. Tyler Chatwood will start the first game for the Cubs with Mike Montgomery slated to go Game 2.

As of 10 p.m. Monday night, the Cubs were unsure what caused the power issue at Wrigley Field but were working on fixing the problem ahead of Tuesday's scheduled doubleheader.

The evening started with the tarp being rolled onto the field by the Cubs grounds crew roughly an hour before scheduled first pitch with a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of rain.

Only a light rain fell until a downpour began around 8:15 p.m.:

That lasted only about a half hour before the grounds crew came back out around 8:45 p.m. to partially remove the tarp and attempt to get the field ready to play.

The only issue at that point was the light and a sinister forecast.

"It takes 45 minutes to get the field ready to play," said Julian Green, Cubs director of communications. "So once you take that tarp off, you saw them putting the chalk lines down, getting ready.

"We wanted to be ready — even in the face of rain — if the lights came back on, we wanted to make sure we could play baseball, even if it was a limited window of opportunity."

As of 11 p.m., that second bout of rain had yet to materialize, but the lights issue also wasn't corrected and play on the field would've been impossible.

Fans lingered throughout the stadium for nearly three hours before an official conclusion came down. The Cubs kept the same announcement on the right field video board about the weather delay while the left field video board displayed the Brewers-Pirates and other MLB games.

This is the only trip to Chicago the Dodgers make throughout the 2018 season so the two teams and Major League Baseball did all they could to try to get a game in and avoid any issue where these two teams would have to play on a mutual off-day later in the year. 

The Cubs were in the midst of a stretch of 17 games in 17 days without a day off. They're still on that same schedule, though now with an unexpected day off Monday and a doubleheader Tuesday.

The Cubs are no stranger to postponements this season as wacky weather has continued to hamper this MLB season.

"Not only for the Chicago Cubs, but Chicago in general, this has been a really interesting spring and summer season," Green said. "We're taking our licks just like everybody else is.

"Our plan is to play baseball tomorrow and make sure we can accomodate fans as best as possible. So fans who have tickets to tonight's game will be able to use them for tomorrow."

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

How the Cubs are trying to help Kris Bryant out of his slump

Whatever Kris Bryant does from here, it's just frosting on the cake that is his legacy.

That's one way to look at the lasting impact of a guy like Bryant, who morphed from "The Chosen One" as the No. 2 overall pick. He's lived up to the hype from Day 1, has a Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Award in his trophy case and — most importantly of all — led the Cubs to their first World Series championship in 108 years.

A slump in May and June of 2018 won't tarnish that legacy.

But you can also forgive Cubs fans if they're growing a little antsy with their stud player. 

Just rest easy that he's growing a little antsy, too.

After chronicling his "temper tantrums" and actually admitting he gets so angry he is prone to breaking bats in frustration (still find that really hard to believe) last week, Bryant still isn't quite over his slump.

Maybe he's just simply trying to do too much right now.

"Kris is fine," Jon Lester said. "I mean, I think anytime you have a guy like that, he's got such high expectations not only of himself but the other people outside of the baseball world.

"I think he feels that — he feels pressure from his teammates, he feels pressure from himself and he wants to perform and he wants to do well every night. When he doesn't, it seems like he just keeps adding on. The rock on his back gets a little bigger every time."

As recently as May 22, Bryant was hitting .303 with a 1.007 OPS.

But since then — a span of 21 games — he's hitting just .241 with a .316 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage, good for a .627 OPS. More alarming than anything, he's struck out 28 times in 87 at-bats, taking a step back in the area he has made the most improvement in since breaking into the league in 2015.

The power has been an issue for even longer. Bryant just recently went a month without a homer before sending one into the bleachers Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Still, since May 15, he has only 8 extra-base hits (7 doubles and that 1 homer) in 27 games.

The struggle is real right now, but that hasn't stopped the Cubs from going 17-11 during Bryant's dip in power.

GM Jed Hoyer reiterated again that Bryant is the last guy the Cubs worry about in the big picture.

"The way he runs the bases, the way he plays defense, I feel like he's contributing to wins even when he might be struggling at the plate a little bit," Hoyer said Monday evening. "With guys like him, I always look at it and think to myself — that means a hot streak is right around the corner.

"I said that about Anthony [Rizzo] in April when he was struggling and he's been great since May 1. I think Kris will have the same kind of turnaraound. With him, it's just a matter of when he breaks out.

"Over the course of the season, every great player goes through one or two big slumps. We're in a strange sport where even the greatest players are not slump-proof. He'll get out of it and we'll all reap the benefits when he does."

Even with the struggles, Bryant ranks 23rd among position players in WAR (Fangraphs) with 2.3, pacing the Cubs in that category. That still puts him on pace for a roughly 6-WAR pace, which would be his lowest throughout his MLB career but is still very clearly elite.

In an effort to get him back to the "KB" we've seen so much over the last four years, Joe Maddon has twice resorted to bumping him to the top of the lineup, including Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

Maddon is hoping a move to the leadoff spot will reinstill in Bryant's head that he doesn't need to be a power hitter to help the team win.

For right now, it works. After all, Bryant is still tied for 9th in baseball in OBP (.389). 

"You really do start trying too hard," Maddon said. "You try to force things as opposed to letting them come to you. Especially a power guy that's not hit home runs in a bit. My take on power guys is that it normally is cyclical. They'll get it for a while, then they'll get away with it, then it comes back."

Like Hoyer, Maddon talked up Bryant's abilities as a "winning player" in every other area of the game even when he's not going yard. That includes his daily hustle and effort.

"When a guy like him goes through this moment, I want him to focus on that — not homers," Maddon said. "He probably hears that way too much about the power situation and I'm really not interested in that. 

"Put him back in the leadoff spot for the reasons I just said — he can help win a game in so many different ways and I want him to just focus on that. ... He needs our support; he's gonna get it. I just put him in that top spot to readjust how he's thinking and that's all."