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.”
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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.”