If Nationals are playoff preview, what should Cubs do at trade deadline?

If Nationals are playoff preview, what should Cubs do at trade deadline?

WASHINGTON – Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio has perspective after sitting through the darkest days of the rebuild, the sign-and-flip cycles and moments like “Men Playing Against Boys,” the way ex-manager Dale Sveum once sized up the team during a 2012 series against the Washington Nationals.

Bosio trusted future “World’s Greatest Leader” Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the rest of a growing front office would deliver talent during the 101-loss season that led to the Kris Bryant No. 2 overall draft pick and the Ryan Dempster/Kyle Hendricks buzzer-beater deal at the trade deadline.   

So while Bosio is a hardened realist who understands the banged-up Cubs haven’t played up to their potential, he also knows these are first-division problems. 

“If Theo and Jed can find a way to make our team better, you can bet they’re going to do it,” Bosio said. “But at the same time, they’re not going to sacrifice our future. They know that the team (here has) a lot of holdovers from the World Series club. There’s a lot of holdovers from the team that went to the National League (Championship Series in 2015). We’ve been through that. And when it comes crunch time, we produce.”

With that in mind, a look at where things stand five weeks out from the July 31 trade deadline as the defending champs begin a potential playoff preview on Monday at Nationals Park:

• If Max Scherzer flirts with another no-hitter or a 20-strikeout game on Tuesday, the questions will start all over again about adding a hitter. Javier Baez even let this slip over the weekend after a win over the Miami Marlins: “Pretty much not having a leadoff guy right now is kind of tough.” But shipping Kyle Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa is not necessarily the start of an offensive overhaul.

“Our focus is going to be on pitching,” Hoyer said. “I would never say never to something like that, because I don’t know what’s going to present itself as we get closer to the deadline. I will say this: When it comes to our offense, I really do see it as these are our guys. We’re as deep with position players as any team in baseball. These guys have performed exceptionally well. Most of these guys have won 200 games over the last two years.

“We believe in them for a reason. We don’t have rings on our fingers without all these guys.”

• With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey on the verge of becoming free agents, the Cubs feel like they should start working on their winter plans this summer and begin remodeling the rotation. The 38-37 record makes you wonder how ultra-aggressive the front office will be to win a bidding war for a frontline starter, but the Cubs are only 1.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, a first-place team for now that was supposed to be rebuilding this year.   

But the Cleveland Indians got to the 10th inning of a World Series Game 7 with Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt making nine playoff starts combined, because they had Corey Kluber and a dynamic bullpen.

The primary focus will have to be on the rotation, but adding another high-leverage reliever to work in front of lights-out closer Wade Davis would shorten games and help preserve Carl Edwards Jr. (170 pounds) and Koji Uehara (42 years old).   

“At some point, you’re going to assess your own team,” Hoyer said. “Sometimes strengthening a strength can work. You see teams that sometimes have a good offense – and add another good hitter – and all of a sudden we’re going to beat you in a different way.”

• Without making this summer’s blockbuster deal for a closer – the way the Cubs landed Aroldis Chapman – Washington risks wasting Bryce Harper’s second-to-last season before free agency and another year of Scherzer’s $210 million megadeal.

Six different Nationals have saved games for a 45-30 team and the bullpen ranks near the bottom of the majors with a 4.88 ERA. Can’t blame that on Dusty Baker, who has notched more than 1,800 wins as a manager and guided four different franchises to the playoffs.

But it won’t be easy to find a quick fix for the Washington bullpen or Cubs rotation. The American League opened for business on Monday with only three of its 15 teams more than three games under .500, and one being the White Sox, who are (obviously) not seen as a realistic trade partner for the Cubs.

“The American League is incredibly jumbled up,” Hoyer said. “That’s why a lot of deals don’t happen this time of year, because people are still sorting it out. The next five weeks of baseball will determine a lot of that. Some of those teams that are in the race now will fall back.

“There’s a lack of teams right now that have a true sense of sellers. I think there are a lot of teams right now that are close enough that they’re not going to admit it that they’re going to be sellers. That five weeks will determine a lot about who ends up on which side of the fence.”

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.

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“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.”

Joe Maddon's up-and-down roller coaster with Cubs: 'I'm enjoying it in a perverse way'

Joe Maddon's up-and-down roller coaster with Cubs: 'I'm enjoying it in a perverse way'

Every morning, Joe Maddon tries to block out 20 minutes for meditation, making the room as dark as possible, laying down in bed with a pillow on top of his face and focusing on slowing things down.

Zen doesn’t come easily for Cubs managers. But Maddon has too many outside interests to be consumed by this up-and-down start, sitting down with Charlie Rose last week in New York and showing a “Dateline” crew around his blue-collar hometown in Pennsylvania.

Maddon has perspective at the age of 63, the job security from a long-term contract that will pay him $6 million this season and the World Series ring that should silence any second-guessers.

So what if the Cubs haven’t run away from the rest of the National League Central?

“I’m enjoying it in a perverse way,” Maddon said. “Of course, I’d rather we be 10 games up, but I’m good with what’s going on right now, because it is challenging, and every year presents differently.”

Then Maddon should take sick pleasure in this: After Wednesday afternoon’s 3-2 loss to the San Diego Padres, the Cubs won’t play again at Wrigley Field until the Fourth of July.

This 11-game road trip through Miami, Washington and Cincinnati could be a playoff preview (Dusty Baker’s Nationals), a revealing window into how aggressive Theo Epstein’s front office should be at the trade deadline or more of the same with a 36-35 team.

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“Right now, there’s been a lot of micro stuff, injury-wise, going on,” Maddon said, “nothing horrible, but guys being banged up a little bit. And then you’re trying to situate a lot of youth, giving them more opportunity to play.

“Ian Happ is just showing up. (Albert) Almora is still trying to create his everyday chops here in the big leagues. (Kyle) Schwarber’s been struggling. A lot of youth that you’re trying to get really involved.”

In a game where a strained right foreman forced Miguel Diaz to leave in the third inning, the Cubs generated all their offense with one swing — Happ’s two-run homer into the right-center field bleachers. Otherwise, what can be an all-or-nothing lineup went 1-for-27 against a 29-44 Padres team.

The day after Mike Montgomery shut down the Padres through six scoreless innings, Eddie Butler couldn’t get one out in the fifth, another bad sign for a rotation that doesn’t know when Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) will be able to come off the disabled list.

All this day-to-day stress might finally break a strong bullpen, with reliable veteran Koji Uehara forcing in the go-ahead run with a two-out, bases-loaded walk in the eighth inning.

What do you see when you close your eyes and think about the Cubs? The group that made history last year or the team that can be hard to watch this season?

“It’s a different method this year, there’s no doubt about it,” Maddon said. “I think primarily — I’ve talked about it from the beginning — it’s the inexperience of a lot of the players that I’m aware of and how it plays on a daily basis. The youthful mistake will show up, and you have to teach through it and eventually hope that it would go away.

“It is challenging, but I am kind of enjoying it.”