MILWAUKEE – Theo Epstein made his bones with the gutsy four-team deal that shipped Boston Red Sox icon Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs at the 2004 trade deadline. If Theo – in the middle of his second full season as Boston’s general manager – could trade “Nomah” – off a Red Sox team that was 11 games over .500 – then no one should be considered untouchable.
But Garciaparra wasn’t Epstein’s guy – the Red Sox drafted him while Theo was still a Yale University student/Baltimore Orioles intern – and would become a free agent after that season. There were concerns about up-the-middle defense, the injury history and clubhouse chemistry.
Epstein now has three World Series titles on his resume, total control over baseball operations at Wrigley Field and a team built with his exact specifications in mind.
Trying to land another big-ticket pitcher, would Epstein break up this championship core within the final 48 hours before the July 31 trade deadline?
“I’d be surprised, based on my conversations,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday at Miller Park, where it almost felt like a home game as the Cubs battled the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the National League Central. “We like our guys. We like our team.”
Epstein has repeatedly signaled that he believes in this group and isn’t looking to move major-league assets this summer, which would presumably make the Cubs and their thinned-out farm system an unlikely match for Oakland A’s right-hander Sonny Gray.
But you also assumed the White Sox would never trade Jose Quintana to the Cubs until Epstein executed that deal during the All-Star break – and then explained that it should be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the players already within the clubhouse.
“I think we have all the ingredients that we need right here,” Maddon said. “There’s also some dudes in Triple-A. They can still help, too. So whatever the boys decide, I’m fine with it.
“But I don’t necessarily see a subtraction among the position-player group, or with anybody that’s here, really. I’d be surprised if the addition came through subtraction here.”
It’s also worth remembering Epstein’s investment strategy in hitters over pitchers in the draft, through trades and on the free-agent market, how the Cubs spent $155 million on Jon Lester and gave up two top prospects for Quintana because the left-handers are in some ways mirror images of each other with clean deliveries and long track records of durability.
Gray began this season on the disabled list with a strained lat muscle – after a strained trapezius muscle and a strained right forearm limited him to 22 starts last year (5-11, 5.69 ERA). Gray has been repeatedly linked to the New York Yankees, a franchise with deeper prospect resources and a greater sense of urgency to land a starting pitcher.
The Cubs are trying to add a veteran backup catcher – someone like A.J. Ellis – and Maddon has made the case for acquiring a high-leverage reliever for the stretch run. But Epstein won’t have to mortgage the future to make that happen.
“Again, they’re still really young,” Maddon said. “Regardless of some of the struggles some of the guys are having right now, over the next two years, they’re going to come back in the plus column. No doubt in my mind. No doubt in my mind. You got to be patient sometimes.
“You got to work through some thin moments, especially with youthful players, because they’re going to mess it up. You’re not going to be able to nail it down – 162 games on an annual basis – without any bumps. You’re not. It’s just impossible to do that.”
The Cubs used a first-round pick on Ian Happ in 2015 with the idea that a college hitter could be fast-tracked and flipped for pitching later. But Happ debuted in the middle of May and emerged as a middle-of-the-order force and a better-than-advertised defender all over the field.
Javier Baez is the NLCS co-MVP who stopped being mentioned in trade rumors when Major League Baseball opened an investigation into All-Star shortstop Addison Russell’s domestic situation. World Series legend Kyle Schwarber is hitting under .200 and trying to get back into the flow after his detour to Triple-A Iowa.
The Cubs are looking all the way through 2021 – not just at the end of this October.
“The work ethic’s good, they care, they’re timely,” Maddon said. “All that stuff I love, so I’ve expected the waves and the rollercoaster. But long term – as these guys continue understanding the game better here – they’re going to keep getting better.”