All-in at trade deadline? Cubs looking to strengthen bullpen for October

All-in at trade deadline? Cubs looking to strengthen bullpen for October

The Cubs built double-digit leads on the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, two division rivals that won 198 games combined last season, but are now treading water in a National League filled with have-nots playing for the future.

The Cubs have a plus-171 run differential at a time when the Boston Red Sox are listed second in that category at plus-83. The Cubs have a 2.31 rotation ERA that is almost a full run lower than the second-ranked New York Mets and their vaunted starters.

The Cubs have nine players on their active roster who are 26 years old or younger - meaning all those hitting prospects can't make it to Wrigley Field — and the bullpen is an obvious area to upgrade. 

Plus — you know — the century-and-counting World Series title drought. Why not go for it at the trade deadline, acquire a game-changing reliever (or two) and leave as little as possible to chance in the playoffs? 

"I wouldn't state anything quite that aggressively," general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday before the Cubs renewed their rivalry with the Cardinals. "But there's no doubt we're going to spend the next 40 days before the deadline trying to evaluate where we are. 

"We want to address the weaknesses that we have. That's something that we talk about all the time — not only addressing the weaknesses you have — but also thinking about where those things can come up. We always talk about trying to be ahead of the next thing that can go wrong."

The New York Yankees went into spring training planning to keep Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman together — and then see where the team is at in July and if it would force the franchise's first sell-off in a generation. 

Adam Warren — the swingman acquired from New York in the Starlin Castro trade — has allowed eight of 20 inherited runners to score and seen his ERA rise to 4.56 (after giving up zero earned runs in his first eight appearances with the Cubs). 

Left-handed hitters are putting up a .924 OPS against lefty Clayton Richard (7.50 ERA). Justin Grimm (4.81 ERA) hasn't taken that step forward into being a trusted late-inning reliever yet.

Setup guy Pedro Strop has made 200-plus appearances in a Cubs uniform since coming over from the Baltimore Orioles in the Jake Arrieta trade in the middle of the 2013 season. Closer Hector Rondon is a Tommy John survivor who missed almost three seasons in the Cleveland Indians system before the Cubs grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft at the 2012 winter meetings. 

"It's something you constantly address," Hoyer said. "There are probably 30 teams in baseball right now that at some level are talking about one or two members of their bullpen. That's just kind of the nature of the way pitching is today with 12 and 13-man staffs. 

"But there's no doubt we have some guys that pitched great baseball for us last year at the end of the season that are scuffling a little bit. It's just our job to get those guys back on track. I don't think you lose faith in them, especially when you see them go out and dominate in the postseason."

Maybe Joe Nathan makes a comeback after his second Tommy John procedure and becomes a great story in October. The Cubs did catch lightning in a bottle last year with Richard (acquired midseason from Pittsburgh's Triple-A affiliate for a dollar) and Trevor Cahill (who signed a minor-league contract last August).

Maybe the Cubs don't feel like they have to pay top dollar and buy a brand-name reliever. But if you're already looking for where things could go wrong during this magical season, the bullpen would be a good place to start. 

"You have faith in those guys," Hoyer said. "It's the nature of bullpens in general — just like a lineup — (where) you rarely have everyone clicking on all cylinders. You have some guys that are usually pitching better than others. The difference in bullpens is it's a lot of high-leverage situations. (But) if one guy's struggling at the plate, it might go unnoticed.

"We'll get those guys back on track. Obviously, we're aware of it. Hopefully, we'll get those guys going sooner rather than later."

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Jake Arrieta getting close and message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 

The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (sore left wrist), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (cut left hand) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

The Cubs didn’t rebook Schwarber to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

All these circumstances made a vintage Jake Arrieta performance during Thursday night’s 11-1 win at Marlins Park so important. Whether or not the Cubs make a blockbuster trade for a pitcher, there are still five-plus weeks left until buyers and sellers will feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”

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On a night where he felt “low energy,” rocked a new buzz cut and covered his right thumb with Dermabond to treat a cut/blister issue that can be traced back to spring training, Arrieta needed only 82 pitches to get through seven innings, completely shutting down a strong Miami lineup except for a Marcell Ozuna home run.

Arrieta’s inconsistencies (7-5, 4.36 ERA) have mirrored a 37-35 team, but he didn’t hesitate when asked where he is at now in a season that has so far not lived up to his Cy Young/All-Star expectations.  

“I’m close,” Arrieta said. “I’m really close.”

The Cubs are still the defending champs. Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. Blocking out a messy personal situation, All-Star shortstop Addison Russell almost hit for the cycle (no triple) the day after getting questions about his divorce and a Major League Baseball investigation. This year’s Schwarber – rookie Ian Happ – also went 4-for-5 and gave the team another jolt.  

“It’s tough to see Schwarber go down,” Arrieta said. “We know that he’s going to be one of our mainstays in the lineup eventually. He’s hit a rough patch and it happens to the best of us. 

“I’ve been there. I talked to him yesterday a little bit about just keeping his head down and going to work and getting his at-bats and trying to find that comfort level. He’ll be back soon. He’s a tremendous hitter who’s going through some struggles and he’s going to right the ship. There’s no doubt about that. He’s too good of a hitter.

“A night like tonight where we pitch well and we score 11 runs, it looks easy. But it’s about consistency and trying to build off of a night like tonight. We’ve got the guys necessary to do so. We’re very capable of doing that.”

Especially if Arrieta gets hot again and shows how he can lift an entire team. 

“To get Jake pitching that kind of quality game again is going to be a big boon to us,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”