Chicago Cubs

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.”

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

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USA TODAY

Jose Quintana’s ‘career-altering’ game has Cubs planning clinch party in St. Louis

MILWAUKEE – The Cubs are going to destroy Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. The rivalry has fundamentally shifted to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals are hanging around the National League’s wild-card race in a transition year and it would have been a massive failure if the defending World Series champs didn’t win this division. But there will be some symbolism to popping champagne bottles and spraying beer all over that room.

“We intend to clinch there,” Ben Zobrist said after Jose Quintana’s complete-game masterpiece in Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “And I think for a lot of the guys that have been around here for a long time, it’s going to be very satisfying.”

Quintana has only been a Cub since the Brewers failed to close a deal with the White Sox and team president Theo Epstein swooped in to make a signature trade during the All-Star break. Quintana hasn’t yet pitched in the playoffs, but this is close enough, the Cubs winning back-to-back 10-inning games against the Brewers and shaking off a walk-off loss before the lefty faced off against Chase Anderson in front of a sellout crowd of 42,212.

Quintana gave the Cubs more data points to consider as they prepare for a probable first-round series against the Washington Nationals. The magic number to eliminate both the Brewers and Cardinals is two, with Milwaukee off on Monday and the Cubs playing a rivalry game in St. Louis that night, meaning the party goggles won’t come out until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the playoffs already for this team,” said Zobrist, who again looked like a World Series MVP in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game when he launched Anderson’s first-pitch fastball into the second deck in right field for a two-run, breathing-room homer. “We’re already thinking that way.

“We’re in postseason mode right now. And we intend to continue that for the next month.”

While there are valid concerns about Jon Lester’s nosedive in performance since coming off the disabled list and the state of Jake Arrieta’s right hamstring, the focus should also be on how Quintana (7-3, 3.50 ERA in 13 starts as a Cub) could be an October game-changer for this rotation.

“Once he got over here, he was really jacked up about having a chance to play in the playoffs,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s showing you that right now. Games like that, to me, could be kind of career-altering for a pitcher.

“When you pitch a complete-game shutout on the road under these circumstances, that definitely does something for your interior. It definitely fluffs it up a little bit.”

“It’s exciting to be here,” said Quintana, who allowed only three singles, piled up 10 strikeouts against one walk and hit 93 mph on his 116th and final pitch in the ninth inning. “I just try to help my team and it’s really special when you get that opportunity. It’s about winning and I have a huge opportunity here.”

In all phases of the game – dominant starting pitching, an offense that created different ways to score runs, multiple bullpen contributors and an airtight defense that committed zero errors in 39 innings – Maddon saw what he was looking for: “We reacted in a playoff manner for these four games. Our mental intensity could not be beat.”

That drifting, in-and-out focus had been part of the background when the Cubs shocked the baseball world with the Quintana trade in the middle of July. Concentration won’t be an issue at Busch Stadium. And this hangover will be real.

“It will be nice to do it there, I’ll just say that,” said Zobrist, who understands the Cubs-Cardinals dynamic as someone who grew up in downstate Illinois. “But we got to win the games.

“As John Lackey said it before (this) series: ‘This is not a small series, boys.’ We knew it was a big one here in Milwaukee. And it will be another big one in St. Louis.”

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

Joe Maddon gives Cubs space during national anthem: ‘Everybody’s got the right to express themselves’

MILWAUKEE – As protests formed at NFL stadiums across the country, sending an anti-Trump message after the president’s inflammatory rhetoric, a group of about 11 Cubs players and coaches stood off the third-base line while a men’s a cappella group sung the national anthem before Sunday’s 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.

The night before, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to follow in Colin Kaepernick’s footsteps and kneel during the national anthem at the Oakland Coliseum, sending a jolt through a conservative industry.  

“Like I’ve always talked about, everybody’s got the right to express themselves in the manner in which they feel,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I’ve always felt that way.”

That’s easer said than done in a team sport that doesn’t have the same outspoken culture as NBA or NFL locker rooms. It will be fascinating to see if this starts a similar movement across baseball. The Cubs are a marquee team that has already visited the White House twice since January and will likely return to Washington in October for a must-watch playoff series against the Nationals.

“I have no idea,” Maddon said. “We’re going to wait and see. And, again, if it does, that’s fine. I have no issues. I’m all into self-expression. And if a player feels that he needs to express himself in that manner, then so be it.”

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Maxwell, the son of a U.S. Army veteran who made his big-league debut last year, told Bay Area reporters this decision had been building and rooted in his own childhood in Alabama, where Trump appeared on Friday at a rally for Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange and told the crowd that NFL owners should fire any “son of a b----” kneeling during the national anthem.      

“The point of my kneeling was not to disrespect our military or our constitution or our country,” Maxwell said. “My hand was over my heart because I love this country and I have family members, including my father, who bled for this country, and who continue to serve.

“At the end of the day, this is the best country on the planet. I am and forever will be an American citizen and grateful to be here. But my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, and I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice.

“This goes beyond the black and Hispanic communities because right now we have a racial divide that’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country saying it’s basically OK to treat people differently. I’m kneeling for a cause, but I’m in no way disrespecting my country or my flag.”

Maddon’s anti-rules philosophy gives the Cubs the space to do whatever they think’s necessary to get ready for the next game. It’s freedom from: dress codes on road trips, guidelines on facial hair and overloaded mandatory batting-practice sessions.

That hands-off approach has worked to the point where the defending World Series champs could clinch a second straight National League Central title as soon as Tuesday at Busch Stadium and celebrate in front of the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s not unusual to see only a small group of players, coaches and staffers standing on the field during the national anthem.

“That’s up to them,” Maddon said. “I’ve never really had a policy regarding being out for the anthem or not. A lot of times guys like to do different things right before the game begins. Sometimes, you’re on the road, you hit later and you get in later and then your time is at a premium. So I’ve never really had a specific theory about coming out for your anthem at all.”