NEW YORK — It’s not just Joe Maddon happy talk or next-level spin from Theo Epstein when the Cubs insist they believe in their lineup and expect a huge turnaround.
How much is enough? The Cubs have used first-round picks on Javier Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ. The Cubs traded another first-round talent (Andrew Cashner) and an All-Star pitcher (Jeff Samardzija) to get Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell. The Cubs guaranteed Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist $240 million after the New York Mets swept them out of the 2015 National League Championship Series.
Short of the American League All-Star lineup, what do you want? This franchise has absolutely poured its resources into hitters. The Cubs finally looked like an offensive juggernaut again on Tuesday night, knocking out Zack Wheeler in the second inning and launching five homers during a 14-3 win at Citi Field.
The most pressing issue for the defending World Series champs — and the biggest long-term concern about The Foundation of Sustained Success — remains the rotation. That makes the July 31 trade deadline a rare opportunity for Epstein’s front office to impact a pennant race and build for the future.
“I am not hoping for anything,” Maddon said. “I really support what we have right here. (Theo) and Jed (Hoyer) are going to constantly look at whatever they perceive to be upgrading our team. So if it happens, wonderful, based on their evaluation. And if it doesn’t, my job is to make this work.”
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The Cubs have so many question marks after Jon Lester, the $155 million ace with three World Series rings who became the eighth active pitcher to notch 150 career wins, joining John Lackey, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver.
In what Maddon called an “effortless” performance, Lester shut down the Mets (29-34), allowing only one run across seven innings while piling up 10 strikeouts against one walk. That’s exactly what a 32-32 team needs now to take off in a weak division.
But where the Cubs can see so many signs pointing toward a sustainable offense and anticipated growth — youth, talent level, past playoff performances against some of the best pitching in the world — the rotation appears to be trending in the wrong direction.
The Cubs don’t know when Kyle Hendricks will stop feeling the tendinitis in his right hand and come off the 10-day disabled list. Lackey was born in 1978, has a 5.26 ERA and is threatening to break Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven’s single-season record for home runs allowed (50). Even if the cut on his right thumb is manageable, Jake Arrieta has already been dealing with questions about his velocity, mechanical alignment and walk-year distractions.
Maybe the change-of-scenery stuff works, but Mike Montgomery has already been traded three times and Eddie Butler owns a 6.12 career ERA across parts of four big-league seasons.
“I believe our guys are going to be fine,” Maddon said. “I really was counting on Kyle being back this time through. I thought that for sure, based on what I had been hearing.
“From my perspective — for me and the coaches — it’s about us maintaining the same message by doing our same work, not trying to change a whole lot and supporting our guys. It’s being there for them. I think that’s what’s important right now.
“It’s not about being angry. I don’t understand those methods of teaching or coaching. Our guys are good. They’re going to show it again this year. They need our support right now and that’s what they’re going to get.”
Support could mean finally trading from this surplus of hitters and getting that pitcher who could start Game 2 in a playoff series and solidify the 2018 rotation.
“I think the bats are here,” Maddon said. “I honestly do. We have not performed at our level yet offensively. But I believe our bats are here with good health and everybody being able to participate. There’s enough offense out there.”