Theo Epstein wanted to see how the team responded to the Jose Quintana trade and performed after the All-Star break before deciding how aggressive the Cubs should be before the July 31 deadline. The clubhouse just sent the answer back: Don’t stop now.
The Cubs opened the second half by going 6-0, their longest winning streak of the season, outscoring the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves by a 44-17 aggregate. At 49-45, the Cubs are at a high-water mark they haven’t reached since late May, finally looking more and more like the team they envisioned leaving spring training.
Knowing how Epstein operates, nothing should be ruled out during a 10-game stretch that begins Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field against the St. Louis Cardinals: A rivalry weekend series that will draw ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball,” four crosstown games against the rebuilding White Sox and a Miller Park showdown that will be a sea of blue with Cubs fans and the first-place-for-now Milwaukee Brewers.
That takes us to July 31, when Epstein won’t worry about the prospect rankings or how the Cubs will find a next generation of talent.
“The best farm system in the world is when they’re on your big-league team,” Epstein said. “Ian Happ doesn’t count as a prospect anymore. I’ll take a 22-year-old coming up and hitting 13 tanks in his first two-and-a-half months in the big leagues any day of the week over a farm system.”
Within the last year, the Cubs have traded two of the game’s top-five prospects on Baseball America’s 2017 midseason rankings, packaging Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster deal with the New York Yankees to acquire Aroldis Chapman and bundling Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease and two more minor-leaguers to get Quintana from the White Sox.
If they keep their big-league core intact, the Cubs probably don’t have the headliner to make a deal that sends the same shockwaves the Quintana deal created last week.
But it would never become a buy-or-sell decision – more like how much and what to give up – because getting Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber back together in the lineup plus Kyle Hendricks’ eventual return to the rotation would automatically give the defending World Series champs a boost.
To get a backup catcher, a high-leverage reliever and/or a buy-low pitcher, the Cubs can look in several different directions and not feel like they’re mortgaging the future – or hold onto certain assets with the hopes they might help keep Wrigley Field rocking in October for years to come.
Victor Caratini would be competing for a Pacific Coast League batting title if veteran catcher Miguel Montero hadn’t talked his way off the team. Jeimer Candelario is a 23-year-old switch-hitter who works out with Robinson Cano during the offseason and has 19 homers, 96 RBI and a .901 OPS in 147 career games at the Triple-A level.
Jim Hendry’s group that built the Latin American pipeline that produced Jimenez and Torres – and Starlin Castro and Willson Contreras – is still largely in place and will discover more talent.
The Epstein administration just used its highest picks ever on pitchers in the June draft, taking a junior-college lefty with one of the best curveballs in the draft at No. 27 (Brendon Little) and a College World Series performer/LSU’s Friday night starter at No. 30 (Alex Lange).
“I have all the faith in the world that we’re going to continue to draft and sign players that will restock our farm system,” Epstein said. “Again, the best farm system, you can see it by watching your big-league team, whether they’ve been promoted or you’ve (traded) guys away to bring talented players here. That’s what we’re looking for.
“And, I should say, there are a lot of really talented players still down on the farm who we believe in who are going to play for the Cubs.”
It almost sounded like a running joke at Cubs Convention, team officials talking up a new group of A-ball guys as the next wave of pitching each January.
But Jen-Ho Tseng, the organization’s 2014 minor league pitcher of the year, has put up a 1.46 ERA in his first two starts at Triple-A Iowa during his age-22 season. The Taiwanese right-hander, starter Trevor Clifton and reliever Daury Torrez were three of the seven players from Double-A Tennessee chosen for the Southern League All-Star Game.
Most of the buzz revolves around right-hander Adbert Alzolay, who graduated to Tennessee after shining in 15 starts at advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach (7-1, 2.98 ERA). That’s where the Cubs are seeing Kyle Hendricks parallels with Dartmouth guy Duncan Robinson and feeling optimistic about Thomas Hatch, last year’s top draft pick (No. 104 overall). Hatch – who missed the entire 2015 season with a right elbow injury and came back to become the Big 12 pitcher of the year – has a 3.49 ERA through 18 starts with the Pelicans.
Even forgotten prospect Dillon Maples – who leveraged a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina into a $2.5 million bonus as a 14th-round pick in the 2011 draft – has leaped from Myrtle Beach to Tennessee to Iowa while putting up 74 strikeouts in 46 innings as a reliever.
“I think it’s been a really good year for pitching development in our system,” Epstein said. “We are excited about certain guys on the way here.”
For the first time since Epstein took over baseball operations at Clark and Addison, the Cubs don’t appear to have a Baseball America top-100 prospect.
“And it’s the first time we can call ourselves defending world champions,” Epstein said.