Theo Epstein expects Cubs to take control of their own destiny

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USA TODAY

Theo Epstein expects Cubs to take control of their own destiny

Theo Epstein joined NBC Sports Chicago's very own David Kaplan on his ESPN 1000 radio show speaking about the state of the Cubs with only two months to go before the season ends. First, Epstein addressed Darvish's promising rehab session today. 

"Threw a really good side session, threw with some intensity especially towards the end of it," Epstein explained. "Came out feeling really good and looking forward to what’s next for him. Probably a sim game." 

Kaplan squeezed Epstein, asking him whether he thought Darvish would be able to pitch and be impactful to the Cubs struggling rotation, who hasn't been able to pitch for the Major League club since May 20th. 

"As far as do I expect him to pitch meaningful innings, yeah I do. He’s on the comeback trail, he threw really well Tuesday. He wants to come back. There’s no significant structural damage that would prevent him from coming back we believe, our expectations are if we take our time and handle the rehab the right way he can pitch effectively, meaningful innings for us." 

The Cubs President of Baseball Operations gave a quick update on both closer Brandon Morrow and 3rd baseman Kris Bryant, who are both expected to spend a good chunk of time on the disabled list. However, Epstein was rather positive on both players but did say the club would be patient with both players rehab processes. 

"I haven’t been around the club for a couple of days, I’ve been getting the update from the trainers because of the trade deadline. But we’re taking our time with both guys," said Epstein. "But we're very optimistic, it’s not something we're concerned about for the long haul at all." 

With the deadline officially over, the Cubs came away with three pieces in relievers Jesse Chavez and Brandon Kintzler as well as starter Cole Hamels, but the Cubs were named in plenty of rumors as the season went on. Epstein acknowledged those rumors and spoke candidly about his thought process during this year's trade deadline. 

"There hasn’t been a year we don’t entertain bigger trades or smaller trades, I think every team does that. Every single attractive target we pursued in some form or another," Epstein explained. "Yeah, we went after every significant target, but when you realize what’s coming and what’s going you’re in a better position by not making the deal and move on to the next target." 

But now Epstein is focused on the players currently in tow, particularly the starting pitching, which he admitted has been disappointing thus far. 

"I think the focus has to be from within. We are where we are, tied for first place, tied for the best record in the (National League), but I would say we haven’t really gotten going yet. There’s tremendous room for improvement for our major league roster - especially in the starting rotation," Epstein said.
And that’s the focus, I think we’re going to go as far as our starting pitching takes us. I think that’s an area where we’ve underperformed so far and we have to get that right. " 

With the addition of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish getting closer to returning, the Cubs are still in position to take control of the division and set themselves up well for another deep postseason run. 

"It’s right there for us, we have a tremendous opportunity for a year which we’ve been a little banged up and things haven’t all gone our way. It’s right in front of us and you couldn’t ask for anything more on August 1st then to control your destiny with a great group of guys." 

 

Why the Cubs should not go all-in on a Jacob deGrom trade

Why the Cubs should not go all-in on a Jacob deGrom trade

Eighth inning. Two outs. 3-2 Cubs lead in Game 2 of Saturday's day-night doubleheader.

That's when it became clear the Cubs were not going to be trading for Jacob deGrom.

OK, that's an exaggeration. 

But when Pedro Strop gave up a seeing-eye single to Cardinals infielder Yairo Munoz just past the outstretched glove of Ben Zobrist, it was another reminder just how important both Javy Baez and Addison Russell are to the Cubs' success.

Munoz's single tied the game and the wheels fell off from there as the Cardinals scored 3 more in the ninth for a 6-3 win.

Remember, Baez had been ejected from the game in the fifth inning for throwing his helmet in frustration to a check swing call.

"The dynamic of our defense was lessened by [the ejection]," Joe Maddon said. "...Listen, I'm not gonna deingrate Zo at all — it's just a play that Javy might've been able to make."

Many have wondered how Baez's arm, athleticism and flair would play at shortstop for good, but the simple fact of the matter is the Cubs defense is a huge weapon when Baez is at second and Addison Russell is at short.

That defense is what the Cubs can hang their hat on and project to show up every single day in October. By nature, the offense will always come and go (especially facing the best pitchers in the game) and the Chicago pitching staff is filled with question marks.

So how do the Cubs acquire a starter of deGrom's caliber and years of team control without giving up a piece like Russell in return?

All of that is a long-winded way of gaining some perspective on all the Cubs fans who want their team to go out and get deGrom.

The Cubs couldn't get the Mets ace and NL Cy Young candidate without severely weakening another aspect of their big-league team. There simply isn't enough top talent in the way of prospects for the Cubs to pry deGrom and his 2.5 years of team control out of New York.

There are no Eloy Jimenezes or Gleyber Torres's left in this Cubs system. The Cubs had zero prospects in the Top 50 midseason list released by Baseball Prospectus earlier this month.

"We're in a more difficult position to [make a big-name trade]," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Sunday. "I don't think it's impossible. But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands.

"Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective. We're hopefully pursuing lots of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunisitc.

"And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The [Jesse] Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probabaly not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us. So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."

It's easy to dream about this Cubs team adding a pitcher like deGrom to the front of its rotation, improving the clear weakness of this current team.

But it would come at a cost. Is it really worth it to lessen the October defense up the middle by a significant measure or weaken the team's depth for a guy who only pitches one out of every four games in the postseason?

Some might think so and there's a valid argument this Cubs team is one dynamic pitcher away from being the best in baseball. But it depends on what you have to give up to acquire said "dynamic pitcher."

Pitching is obviously important in the playoffs, but the Cubs are better off trying to make it work with the arms they have. They've already invested a ton of capital in a starting rotation that is signed through the 2020 season.

After all, they boast the best record and run differential in the NL and have opened up a 3.5 game lead in the division on the morning of July 23.

They've done all that in spite of an inconsistent rotation, even if many were calling it one of the best in baseball before the season once Yu Darvish signed.

The Cubs are in the position they're in thanks to a defense that has looked more like the historical 2016 squad than last year's up-and-down team and don't discount the incredible position player depth that has allowed Maddon to keep everybody fresh and rested. This team has been built to withstand injuries and prolonged slumps from its best players — Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant — thanks to that amazing depth.

How could the Mets trade deGrom at this point without demanding at least Russell or Ian Happ as a headliner of the return back to New York?

And from the Cubs' perspective how do they subtract pieces from the deepest roster in the league that has needed every bit of its depth this season?

The best course of action for the Cubs in 2018 is to add another bullpen piece or two (like Zach Britton) and work to get their starters back on track — or, in Darvish's case: healthy.

The track records of guys like Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana indicate they are pitching pretty well below their career norms. Even with Jon Lester due some more regression, he's still a very effective pitcher who is battle-tested and boasts a history of rising to the occasion when the lights are brightest in October.

Mike Montgomery may not have cracked the Cubs' rotation until mid-May, but he's a different pitcher as a starter (3.02 ERA, 1.18 WHIP). Tyler Chatwood's control issues have been well-documented, but he's also sporting a walk rate nearly double his previous career high, so history indicates something may click in that regard eventually.

As Epstein said, each year is different. 

The 2016 Cubs had a clear need at closer and a guy like Aroldis Chapman was enough to push the team over the top to claim the first World Series title in 108 years.

The 2017 Cubs needed a jolt and starting pitching depth and Quintana was exactly that.

The 2018 Cubs have a clear need for a reliable, front-end starting pitcher, but with no elite prospects to deal, it may just be too costly to subtract much from the major-league roster in an effort to address this particular weakness.

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

With trade deadline approaching, Cubs know they can't rely on Yu Darvish

Sunday began like most days have around the Cubs recently: No update on Yu Darvish.

But while the skies opened up over Wrigley Field about 90 minutes before game time, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sat in the third-base dugout and spoke candidly about where Darvish is at currently and how much the Cubs can count on him during the stretch run.

Darvish threw from flat ground — 135 feet — Sunday morning and Epstein said it was "his best day in a long time. He threw really well and felt really good."

Still, there is no specific timetable for when Darvish may be back on the Wrigley Field mound, facing live hitters in a game that matters.

The next step for Darvish will be throwing off a mound, but the Cubs aren't yet talking about where or when the 31-year-old pitcher will go on a rehab assignment.

With the non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just over a week, Epstein and the Cubs know they can't simply project Darvish into the September — or October — rotation.

"I think just making an educated guess," Epstein said. "You can't be overly reliant on somebody who hasn't been able to stay healthy and perform this year. At the same time, you track the rehab closely because you know you have to try to anticipate what he might be able to give you.

"...If you put yourself in a position where you're overly reliant on something that hasn't been dependable up to this point and then it doesn't come through, it's probably more on you than on the fates."

Darvish has accounted for only 40 innings for the Cubs this season and hasn't pitched since May 20. He made it through 5 innings just three times in his eight starts on the campaign.

This is the second DL stint for Darvish this season. He had a bout of the flu in early May and then initially went back on the shelf over Memorial Day Weekend with a triceps issue. The triceps strain has morphed into an elbow impingement after Darvish made a rehab start with Class-A South Bend and he received a cortisone shot in the elbow in late June.

Mike Montgomery has taken Darvish's place in the Cubs rotation and the southpaw has had a lot of success in the role with a 3.02 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 10 starts, averaging nearly 6 innings a start.

Of course, Montgomery's insertion into the rotation has left a bit of a hole in the bullpen as the Cubs have been without their top long man and down one reliable left-handed option.

The long relief role was filled last week with the trade for Jesse Chavez, but the Cubs could probably still use another lefty in the bullpen with Justin Wilson's control issues, Brian Duensing's struggles and Randy Rosario's relative inexperience and worrisome peripheral numbers.

Whether the Cubs will acquire another starting pitcher before the trade deadline is unknown. Epstein's front office knows they need more pitching and understands it's much harder to acquire arms after July 31 than before.

But with Montgomery already filling the last spot in the rotation, Drew Smyly on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery while being stretched out as a starter and now Chavez in town, the Cubs have some veteran starting pitching depth beyond the inexperienced Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood Jr.

The starting pitching market is relatively thin at the moment in terms of arms a team like the Cubs could acquire and plug into a potential playoff rotation. And that's saying nothing of the pieces it would require to pull off such a move, as the Cubs don't have the elite-level prospects they once had to acquire Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana the past two summers.

But with Darvish's status unknown and Tyler Chatwood currently boasting more walks than strikeouts through 18 starts, the Cubs aren't exactly sleeping easy at night trying to project their October rotation.

Epstein acknowledged the front office is focused primarily on pitching ahead of the deadline and though it may be tougher to make those big-name deals compared to years past, that doesn't necessarily take the Cubs out of the running on the impact guys.

Still, don't expect Jacob deGrom or Chris Archer to be walking through that door anytime soon.

"I think we're in a more difficult position to do so. I don't think it's impossible," Epstein said. "But certain years lend themselves to being able to participate in more hands. Other years, because of the way your prospects are performing or because of your desire to keep growing the farm system or just the nature of what's available and how much you need, you have to be more selective.

"I think we're hopefully pursuing a lot of different things, but I think in terms of what's realistic for us, we have to be a little bit more targeted, more selective and a little more opportunistic. And that's fine. Sometimes those end up being the best deals. The Chavez deal is an example of that. He's probably not a name anyone had mentioned at all. We think he's a really good fit for us.

"So that's [an example of] the kind of stuff we're looking to do. While participating in everything else, but knowing that most of the stuff we talked about we won't be able to get done."