There are still three weeks left until July 31, but the Cubs are already trying to fight off the trade-deadline hangover.
The Cubs showed signs of life in Thursday’s 6-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. It took 12 innings and a breakout performance from Arismendy Alcantara (4-for-5, three RBI) while Anthony Rizzo’s Twitter account made a successful Final Vote push into the All-Star Game. That snapped the six-game losing streak that began right after the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s.
Look, the Cubs had almost zero margin for error even with Samardzija and Hammel. And they have so many players fighting for their professional lives that effort shouldn’t be a problem (though that doesn’t mean manager Rick Renteria won’t have to put out fires in the clubhouse).
But players aren’t robots. It’s not easy to focus in this age of social media and 24/7 speculation. While trying to block out the all noise, Samardzija had told at least one close friend that the situation became a huge distraction, and it became hard to miss his big smile at the Oakland Coliseum.
Ozzie Guillen once loved taunting Cubs fans when he managed the White Sox, but the ESPN personality put it this way on an All-Star conference call:
“The Cubs are doing the right thing right now. This trade has been great for everybody. Samardzija — every day when he pitched — all the media in Chicago (would say): ‘When are you going to get traded? When are you going to get traded?’
“The Cubs should be trying to build a good young team for the future. I think that was a big step for everyone.”
Samardzija had been getting questions about the trade deadline since last year’s trade deadline. Samardzija had been getting questions about his contract since at least last spring training, and it only intensified when Rizzo grabbed his long-term extension last May. Samardzija slowly started becoming Matt Garza 2.0, experiencing the nonstop scrutiny his old friend Ryan Dempster felt in 2012.
“In the back of your mind, you’re thinking: ‘Well, who’s next? Is it me?’” Darwin Barney said. “But you know you got to try to put that aside and focus on today. What I can control is today. I think that’s kind of what we have to do.”
Anyone need a Gold Glove second baseman? Maybe the Cubs could find an American League lineup that would give Barney some protection, and package him with one of their other short-term assets. Lefty relievers James Russell and Wesley Wright, outfielders Justin Ruggiano and Nate Schierholtz, infielder Luis Valbuena and swingman Carlos Villanueva should see their names on MLBTradeRumors.com this month.
“Our job is to go out there and play our butts off, regardless of what happens,” Villanueva said. “If I’m here or not, I don’t know, but from an organizational point of view, they have to do what’s best for the future. And if that’s stocking up with the top prospects in (Major League Baseball), then it’s ultimately a positive.
“We have to take care of what we can take care of here — for us — and not worry about that. We can’t get upset. That’s not part of our job. Our job is to get guys out and hit the ball. Guys get traded.
“You do a good job, you get opportunities. If you don’t do your job, then somebody else will do it for you.”
This won’t become the soundtrack to the highlight reel shown at the 2015 Cubs Convention. But president of baseball operations Theo Epstein summed up a team that’s been playing on a loop.
“Our last three seasons have followed a similar pattern where we get out of the gate the first few weeks of the season (with) bullpen issues, closer problems,” Epstein said. “We lose a lot of close games. We don’t hit with runners in scoring position. We get buried in the standings, make a few adjustments, find our way right around June and play pretty good ball.
“And then by the time the deadline rolls around, it’s kind of too late. We’re out of it. We make some changes for the big picture…and then we make our way through August and September.”
The Cubs went 35-80 after July 31 across the last two seasons and then fired manager Dale Sveum.
The Cubs (39-52) will scatter for the All-Star break after this weekend’s three-game series against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field. By that point, there will be 68 games left — 32 within a division that produced three playoff teams last year and has the Milwaukee Brewers in first place now.
There are also 10 games left against the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants as they battle for the National League West.
There are nine more games against American League East teams that have recently been to the postseason and/or are angling for October — the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays.
There’s also a three-game series against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, a place that wears out the young pitchers the Cubs are talking up now.
“Guys that have been here know what the drill has been the last couple years,” Villanueva said. “I just hope I’m a part of it, because you do see the light. It’s a big tunnel and it’s a big light. You want to be a part of it when things shift the other way.”
Hopefully, that’s not a big train coming for what’s left of the 2014 Cubs.
“You stay positive,” Villanueva said. “You take it (day by day).”