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.’”