Breaking down the trade market and Jake Arrieta as Cubs preach patience with pitching

Breaking down the trade market and Jake Arrieta as Cubs preach patience with pitching

It’s still too early to be dreaming about Yu Darvish pitching at Wrigley Field, guessing if the Pittsburgh Pirates would trade Gerrit Cole within the division, calculating how much money remains on Zack Greinke’s megadeal or wondering what a change of scenery and the Chicago nightlife might do to Matt Harvey.

Or at least Cubs president Theo Epstein isn’t buying the early speculation that the July 31 deadline could create unexpected sellers like the Texas Rangers and New York Mets, a glut of starting pitchers and accelerated deals.

“That stuff doesn’t play itself out (yet),” Epstein before Tuesday’s 9-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds. “One six-game winning or losing streak right now takes a team from one category to another. We obviously have to prepare and allocate our scouting resources and whatnot. But it doesn’t make any sense to speculate on the nature of the trade market now, because it will look different in July than it does right now.”

Epstein faced the Chicago media at the beginning of a 10-game homestand that should be revealing for a 19-19 team. Everything around the Cubs will pale in comparison to last year — because that became a once-in-a-lifetime experience — but the rotation looms as the most immediate problem and biggest question mark for the future.

Last season, the Cubs put up 27 quality starts and a 2.34 rotation ERA through their first 37 games. So far this season, it’s 14 quality starts through 37 games with a 4.47 rotation ERA, even though the personnel remains 80 percent the same.

“The starting pitching is trending in the right direction,” Epstein said. “Last year (was) not typical. They were all locked in. They were so consistent. They had tremendous defense behind them, night in, night out. Things were breaking our way.

“This year, it hasn’t been that way. It’s been more realistic, where a couple guys are throwing the ball really well and a couple guys are searching. Balls are falling in. Our defense, for whatever reason, hasn’t been quite as locked in as it was last year. But I see that starting to turn.

“Kyle (Hendricks has) thrown really well the last three or four times out. (Jon) Lester’s been really good. (John) Lackey was terrific his last time out there (at Coors Field). Eddie Butler gave us a huge boost (in St. Louis). We’re excited to see what he can do as he remains in the rotation.”

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The X-factor is Jake Arrieta, the former Cy Young Award winner with diminished velocity and a 5.44 ERA through eight starts. Arrieta has also put up 49 strikeouts against 13 walks in 44.2 innings and gone through this before.

Epstein made a similar observation to scouts who watched Arrieta struggle at times last season, when he still finished with 18 wins, a 3.10 ERA, a .194 batting average against and a .583 opponents’ OPS. The crossfire motion that makes Arrieta so deceptive and explosive can be difficult to maintain.

“Jake, obviously, is still making adjustments, still searching,” Epstein said. “The thing with Jake is — because there’s a lot going on in his delivery — sometimes it takes him a little bit longer than others to find where his body is in space and get that muscle memory down.

“But when he does lock in, he stays locked in (for a long time). So I think it’s inevitable that he will find it.”

If Arrieta doesn’t get locked in, or the rotation’s remarkable stretch of good health finally ends, or Lackey runs out of gas at the age of 38, the Cubs will still have to be patient. One month out, the Cubs are focused on a June draft where they will have two first-round picks to spend on pitching.

“Right after the draft, everyone takes a day or two, catches their breath and then takes a hard look at what they need,” Epstein said. “That’s when more chatter picks up. Trades are basically made at the same time every year. It seems like there’s a little flurry around July 2 and then mid-July and plenty at the end of July.”

With an underperforming rotation, Arrieta and Lackey in contract years and a farm system where the arms haven’t come close to matching the bats, it’s no secret what the Cubs are looking for now: pitching, pitching and more pitching.

“We’ve been doing the same thing we do every single year,” Epstein said. “Every single year, we have pro scouts out from Opening Day on, from spring training on, and we have weekly meetings where we sort of try to understand the landscape and what are some opportunities, what are some potential pitfalls. We’re just doing the same stuff we’re always doing.”

How Cubs reached the breaking point with Kyle Schwarber

How Cubs reached the breaking point with Kyle Schwarber

MIAMI – Theo Epstein scoffed at the possibility of sending a World Series hero down to the minors on May 16, writing the headline with this money quote: “If anyone wants to sell their Kyle Schwarber stock, we’re buying.”

If the Cubs aren’t dumping their Schwarber stock, they’re definitely reassessing their investment strategy, trying to figure out how such a dangerous postseason hitter had become one of the least productive players in the majors.

The overall portfolio hasn’t changed that much since the team president’s vote of confidence, Schwarber batting .179 for the defending champs then and .171 when the Cubs finally made the decision to demote him to Triple-A Iowa. That 18-19 team is now 36-35 and still waiting for that hot streak. 

What took so long?

“The honest answer is we believe in him so much,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday. “He’s never struggled like this. We kept thinking that he was going to come out of it. We got to a point where we felt like mentally he probably needed a break before he could come out of this. 

“The honest answer is patience. We’ve got a guy who’s never really struggled. He was the best hitter in college baseball. He blew through the minor leagues. Last year in the World Series, he performed. We just felt like he was going to turn himself around.

“It just got to a place where we felt like the right way for this to come together was to allow him to get away from the team, to take a deep breath and be able to work on some things in a lower-pressure environment.”   

The Cubs plan to give Schwarber a few days off before he reports to Iowa, an idea that would have seemed unthinkable after watching his shocking recovery from knee surgery and legendary performance (.971 OPS) against the Cleveland Indians in last year’s World Series.

But preparing for one opponent and running on adrenaline through 20 plate appearances is completely different from handling the great expectations and newfound level of fame and doing it for an entire 162-game season.   

This might actually be the most normal part of Schwarber’s career after his meteoric rise from No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft to breakout star in the 2015 playoffs to injured and untouchable during last year’s trade talks with the New York Yankees. 

“There’s been a long and illustrious list of guys that have gone through this,” manager Joe Maddon said. “When a guy’s good, he’s good. Sometimes – especially when they’re this young – you just got to hit that reset button. It’s hard for a young player who’s never really struggled before to struggle on this stage and work his way through it.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

“There’s no scarlet letter attached to this. It’s just the way it happens sometimes. You have to do what you think is best. We think this is best for him right now. We know he’s going to be back.” 

When? The Cubs say they don’t have a certain number of Pacific Coast League at-bats in mind for a guy who’s played only 17 career games at the Triple-A level.

Maddon pointed out how Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee needed minor-league sabbaticals/refresher courses before becoming Cy Young Award winners and two of the best pitchers of their generation.

New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto – another college hitter the Cubs closely scouted before taking Schwarber in the 2014 draft – has gone from the 2015 World Series to Triple-A Las Vegas for parts of last season to potential All-Star this year.

The Cubs fully expect their Schwarber stock to rebound – whether or not the turnaround happens in time to impact the 2017 bottom line.    

“I’m still sticking by him,” Maddon said. “But at some point, you have to be pragmatic. You have to do what’s best for everybody. We thought at this point that we weren’t going to necessarily get him back to where we need him to be just by continuing this same path.

“It’s not a matter of us not sticking with him anymore. We just thought this was the best way to go to really get him well, so that we could utilize the best side of Kyle moving forward.”

CubsTalk Podcast: Reacting to Kyle Schwarber's demotion and Mike Montgomery on his evolution

CubsTalk Podcast: Reacting to Kyle Schwarber's demotion and Mike Montgomery on his evolution

Tony Andracki, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson react in real time to the breaking news that Kyle Schwarber was demoted to the minor leagues. Plus, the trio play around with expansion drafts and who the most indispensable players on the Cubs are.

[RELATED - Inside the numbers on Schwarber's season-long struggles]

Patrick Mooney also goes 1-on-1 with Cubs swingman southpaw Mike Montgomery about the lanky lefty’s role and how he got here.

Check out the entire Podcast here.