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.”

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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.”

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Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

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Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”