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Things aren’t going according to plan for the Chicago Cubs.
Fresh off a 103-win season and billy-goat-burying title run, they emerge from the All-Star break at 43-45, 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.
There is time to steer the ship away from those jagged rocks. Oddsmakers believe, putting the Cubs at 8-1 odds to repeat as champions, according to OddsShark. That’s a generous line for a club mired under .500.
Chicago is laden with talent. No argument there. The lineup is lousy with underperformers, however, and there are serious questions in the starting rotation.
What will—and won’t—the Cubbies do to address those deficiencies ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline? Let’s explore, using the latest rumors and a dash of gut feeling.
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Rick Osentoski/Associated Press
The Cubs traded veteran catcher Miguel Montero to the Toronto Blue Jays July 3 for cash or a player to be named later.
The move came after the 33-year-old backstop made critical comments about Chicago right-hander Jake Arrieta with regard to holding on baserunners, per Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune.
Manager Joe Maddon responded accordingly, per Gonzales: “With this young impressionable group, to me, and a really good group that’s going to be together for a long time, you don’t want to foster, nurture, condone [Montero’s] kind of message.”
Montero wasn’t the Cubs’ primary catcher. That job belongs to the 25-year-old Willson Contreras, who is hitting .261 with 11 homers and has gunned down 31 percent of would-be base-stealers.
The Cubs value veteran leadership behind the dish, however, something they got last season from both Contreras and David Ross.
Hence a July 3 report from Fox Sports’ Jon Morosi that Chicago was sniffing after Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who’s hitting .299 with a .958 OPS and has played 34 postseason games spread over four seasons.
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Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
On Tuesday, former MLB executive Jim Bowden reported on MLB Network Radio that the Cubs were pursuing Tigers starters Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris and were offering outfielder Kyle Schwarber in return (h/t CBSSports.com’s R.J. Anderson).
That’s a big bite to digest.
First off, Fulmer and Norris would undeniably help Chicago. Fulmer, in particular, has been a stud and ranks fourth among AL hurlers in WAR, with 3.1, by FanGraphs’ measure.
Still, it seems likely the Cubs would have to throw in more than Schwarber to get that deal done. The 24-year-old slugger has flashed elite power potential, but he’s a defensive liability and is hitting just .178.
It isn’t like president of baseball operations Theo Epstein to sell low. Unless Detroit or some other club is willing to bet big on Schwarber’s ceiling and ignore his recent struggles, expect Chicago to keep its flawed-yet-alluring asset.
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Chicago Cubs starting pitchers are tied for 16th in baseball, with a 4.66 ERA.
Jon Lester (4.25 ERA), Jake Arrieta (4.35 ERA), John Lackey (5.20 ERA) and Kyle Hendricks (4.09 ERA and a lingering hand injury) have all underwhelmed.
If there is one area of need, this is it.
The Cubs can cross their fingers for better results in the second half, particularly if Hendricks returns healthy. But it’s hard to believe they won’t seek an upgrade.
Aces including the Chicago White Sox’s Jose Quintana and the Oakland Athletics’ Sonny Gray could command a back-breaking output in prospects and/or MLB talent (see: Schwarber, Kyle).
Instead, the Cubs may target a mid-tier option such as the Kansas City Royals’ Jason Vargas, a surprisingly successful rental who wouldn’t break the MiLB bank.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
The Cubs rank 18th in baseball in OPS, 20th in runs scored and 28th in batting average. That begs for a trade-deadline kick in the pants.
However, said kick might not be coming if you believe Epstein, who said, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times:
“This is largely the same club that averaged 100 wins a year over the last two years. There’s not a player we realistically can bring in from the outside that’s going to spur us to play at that level. We’re going to get to a point of playing at that level because of the guys who are here. Of course, we’re going to work hard and do what we can to improve the team. It may happen; it may not happen.“
Maybe it’s a smokescreen. Maybe Epstein is planning to trade for Detroit’s J.D. Martinez, the Miami Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton and the ghost of Ernie Banks.
Don’t count on it, though.
Instead, Schwarber, shortstop Addison Russell (.226 average), jack-of-all-trades Ben Zobrist (.214 average) and others will have to up their games.
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It didn’t take long for the Cubs to go from lovable losers to MLB’s anointed ones.
The champagne and confetti had scarcely been cleaned up on the North Side, and already Chicago was baseball’s nascent dynasty, built on a foundation of homegrown talent, ancillary veterans and curse-revering mojo.
That means scuffling at the mid-race pole is unacceptable, and nothing short of multiple blockbusters will appease every critic.
Chicago will make moves. And Epstein, who has cured the historic October angst of two great American sports cities, deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Yet unless the Cubs stockpile virtually every marquee name before July 31, they’ll be deemed a failure by some.
So it goes when you have the trophy. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
The best response? Win another one.
All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs.