Why Cubs have to target pitching at trade deadline: 'The bats are here'

Why Cubs have to target pitching at trade deadline: 'The bats are here'

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.”

David Ross: Offense will be Cubs' 'strong suit' in 2020 season

David Ross: Offense will be Cubs' 'strong suit' in 2020 season

With baseball shutting down for nearly four months due to COVID-19, it was natural to assume pitchers would be ahead of hitters upon returning this week. Hitters had less access to live competitive pitching, and many instead relied on tee work and hitting in a cage.

Even Cubs manager David Ross thought his pitchers would be ahead of the offense entering Summer Camp, but the club’s first intrasquad game served as a pleasant surprise.

“Maybe it's just my lack of skills when I was a player and hitting and how long it took me to catch up to pitchers, but the hitters looked good,” Ross told reporters in Sunday’s Zoom session. “They looked really good yesterday and that was really rewarding.”

Ross, who admitted he doesn't want to put all of his stock into results alone when evaluating intrasquad games, highlighted some of his club’s at-bats Saturday against top starters Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks. David Bote hit a shot off Darvish into left field, albeit right at Steven Souza for an out. Javier Báez knocked a double into the left-center gap off Darvish.

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Victor Caratini had two hits up the middle off Hendricks, and Jason Heyward added another.

“To hear the sounds and see the balls come off the bat was shocking,” Ross said.

Earlier this week, Ross said the Cubs planned to use a five-man rotation this season and complimented Darvish, Hendricks and Jon Lester for being in advanced shape and ready to contribute multiple innings early on.

MORE: David Ross: Cubs will use five-man rotation, Kris Bryant-Anthony Rizzo atop order

While he continued that praise for his veteran staff on Sunday — even with José Quintana down after undergoing thumb surgery — Ross envisions big things for the offense this season.

“… [I] think our offense is gonna be our strong suit,” he said, “and we've got some good veteran starting pitching and it's fun to watch these guys compete.”


Cubs, MLB persist as high-profile COVID-19 cases reported across baseball

Cubs, MLB persist as high-profile COVID-19 cases reported across baseball

A reporter asking Cubs manager David Ross about the COVID-19 news out of Atlanta on Saturday used the word “shocking” to describe it.

But there’s nothing left to shock us about this pandemic — not spiking coronavirus infection rates across large swaths of the country, a national death toll of 132,000 or even one of the biggest stars in the National League being stricken with what looks like a tough case of the virus.

Freddie Freeman’s case — which prompted the Braves first baseman’s wife to take to Instagram to plead for Americans to take the virus seriously and to wear masks — is a sobering reminder the needle baseball is trying to thread during a pandemic and potentially instructive for the Cubs and other teams.

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Most of you might know by now... Freddie tested positive for Covid-19 last night. He has had body aches, headaches, chills and a high fever since Thursday. He is someone who literally never gets sick and this virus hit him like a ton of bricks. We’ve been really strict for the last 4 months. Haven’t gone to a grocery store, haven’t gone out to dinner once, haven’t seen our friends and only allowed family at our house and we still got it. So far, Charlie, Carol and I are ok. We appreciate all the messages and prayers, please keep them coming for healing and protection for the rest of our family. 🗣Please take this virus seriously, wear a mask when in public and wash you hands frequently.

A post shared by Chelsea Freeman 📍OC & ATL (@chelseafreeman5) on

It’s also especially personal to Cubs such as Ross and right-fielder Jason Heyward, both former Freeman teammates.

“It definitely hits closer to home,” said Heyward, who texted with his former roommate.

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But shocking?

If anything, the shocking part of Saturday was that the Cubs played a baseball game — albeit, a short intrasquad game that featured scoreless pitching performances by Kyle Hendricks (three innings) and Yu Darvish (two), and double to the left-center gap off Darvish by Javy Báez.

MORE: Why the Cubs were ready for an intrasquad scrimmage on Day 2 of Summer Camp

For an hour or two of practice before that, and the hour or so of “game,” it looked almost normal.

Then the masks were back, the players washing and scattering and planning to try to make it happen without incident one more time on Sunday. Then Monday. Then Tuesday and so on.

“We all know some of us are going to test positive coming into this,” Heyward said.

In fact, that’s the most shocking part of MLB’s startup of summer training camps this week: Only 1.2 percent of the first 3,185 intake tests of players and other personnel produced positive results — a clear victory for league-wide discipline and apparent respect for safe practices.

On the other hand, those results didn’t include all of the intake testing done during the week. They also didn’t include the positive tests of players and staff that teams already were aware of — including at least 12 from the Phillies more than two weeks ago.

And a cautionary detail of Freeman’s case is that he reportedly tested negative during intake testing — before getting hit “like a ton of bricks” by the virus Thursday, according to his wife’s Instagram post.

“Literally, we just take this thing day to day,” Ross said. “We’re all to some extent worried what the next day may bring. So, this is an added stress to the season. 

“All the guys are on board with following the protocols and understanding that’s what it takes to keep everybody safe as possible.”

The Cubs have done as good a job of respecting protocols and preparing for this moon shot of a 60-game MLB season this summer as anyone in the game. They didn’t have a player test positive during intake testing.

“We know it’s going to be very different this year,” Hendricks said. “But we’re embracing all the changes, following everything we can follow and just lucky we can be playing baseball again.”

But even while the Cubs experienced what Hendricks called their “a little sense of normalcy with everything that’s going on” during a drama-free day of baseball under a sunny sky at Wrigley Field, the Phillies added ace pitcher Aaron Nola to the COVID-19 injured list, the Yankees reported that former batting champion DJ LeMahieu was one two Yankees to test positive, and the Dodgers announced that former Cy Young winner David Price had become the sixth known player to opt-out of the 2020 season (after reconsidering the health risk to himself and family).

And even before the Freeman news broke out of Atlanta — which also included three other positive tests and a coach (former Cub Eric Young) opting out — the Royals announced that the American League’s most decorated catcher, Salvador Perez, also had tested positive.

Does all of it mean baseball can’t pull off the next 15 weeks or so of training, regular-season and full schedule of playoffs?

Maybe not. But it's at least a stark reminder that MLB had a tenuous grasp at best on controlling its ability to make it happen, that every day of this process is a high-alert stress test with no assurances under conditions of perfect behavior league-wide.

And then it starts over the next morning.

“The pandemic is in control,” Cubs president Theo Epstein stressed when talking about baseball’s undertaking a few days ago.

That’s why on a Saturday when new infections in the country topped 50,000 for the third consecutive day, news out of Atlanta — or New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia or any other stricken baseball locale — was anything but shocking.

Maybe baseball can navigate this shaky moment during the startup and avoid enough of the growing spread of this virus to have more days like the Cubs had on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Wrigley.

Maybe even enough of those days to reach October — maybe even enough to turn this “new normal” into something truly shocking.