The Rundown: How Winning Impacts Cubs’ Trade Outlook, Theo Gets Cocky Putting Farm in Perspective

The Cubs entered the second half of play 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers and with all kinds of questions regarding both their hitting and pitching. They answered at least one of those with the out-of-nowhere acquisition of Jose Quintana, who promptly went out and struck out 12 Orioles in a weekend blowout.

Both the cost they put forth and what the return means in the grand scheme put the Cubs on the high ground when it comes the rest of trade season. Not only do they have that cost-controlled starter they’ve been targeting for a couple years now, but they drained the system enough (more on that below) that a little island appeared in the middle of it.

“If we can get hot and start to play the way that we know that we’re capable of, that probably puts us in a little more aggressive posture…”Theo Epstein

“I think right now we’re taking a breath, taking a step back, trying to understand our roster and payroll dynamic, looking forward now that we have Quintana in the fold,” Epstein just before the first game of the second half. “We’ll certainly still be active with phone calls, at least, this month. Anything that we might want to try to accomplish this winter, it’s good to take a look if you might be able to get a head start and do that now.”

Epstein went on to address their potential strategy in more detail, and we’ve since seen developments in the way the team is playing that could trigger more activity.

“I think it’s an important two weeks,” Epstein continued. “If we can get hot and start to play the way that we know that we’re capable of, that probably puts us in a little more aggressive posture trying to maximize all 25 spots on the roster, maybe try to do some things just for this year.”

There’s still a lot of time left before the deadline, but the current six-game winning streak is a pretty solid example of the Cubs playing the way they’re capable of. That could see them making another move to bolster the roster for what is looking more and more like a legit playoff run. But what does that really mean?

They’re probably not in the market for Sonny Gray, for whom the Brewers and Astros are expected to be the big bidders. And though at least one industry insider thinks they’ll target Orioles closer Zach Britton, we’ve seen what the cost is to acquire an elite reliever. And Britton isn’t a rental, either, which means it’d take a couple prospects and maybe a member of the current roster to land him. That’s not exactly maximizing their spots.

Then again, there’s also the idea that Britton has missed most of the season with a recurring forearm strain, which messes with both his immediate and long-term value. And there’s the matter of keeping him away from the Dodgers, who appear to be interested in his services. But do you make that move as a preventive measure? Do you expand the bullpen and remove either Tommy La Stella or Albert Almora Jr. from 25-man?

The thing about the Cubs getting as hot as they have been is that you don’t have many spots that need an upgrade. Certainly none that would be worth giving up or displacing any players of significant value. Besides, you have to consider the whole dynamic of Kyle Hendricks rejoining the rotation here in a few days. More than just solidifying the rotation, Hendricks sets in motion a few dominoes.

Mike Montgomery is likely headed to the bullpen, where he’s going to displace someone. That’s likely to be Justin Grimm, who has given up at least one earned run in four of his last five appearances and has only struck out four batters while walking six in his last 7.2 innings (seven appearances). And the real kicker is that he can still be optioned, which makes him that much more expendable.

After rediscovering elite velocity to offset his wipeout slider, Hector Rondon has been excellent lately. With him, Pedro Strop, and CJ Edwards leading into Wade Davis, the Cubs have an incredibly formidable back end. Koji Uehara, Brian Duensing, and Montgomery would then round out the pen and make any additional acquisitions somewhat superfluous.

I mean, sure, you’d love to have Britton in there, but would he offer enough incremental improvement over any of those guys to merit the cost it would take to acquire him? For that matter, we could ask that same question when it comes to any of the potentially available starters. If he’s healthy and pitching well, Hendricks is basically like picking up a new starter for no cost.

This is, of course, being viewed in somewhat of an idealistic lens, but I really can’t see many moves the Cubs could make that would appreciably upgrade the roster. Not right now. The one exception would be Alex Avila, to whom the Cubs have been connected for a while. Given the relatively low return the Tigers got for JD Martinez, they can’t or won’t be looking for much in an Avila deal.

I’m a fan of Victor Caratini, but he’s still a very green rookie whose calling card is his bat. Even if Avila falls off a cliff offensively, he’d still be as good as Caratini, though we’re only talking about the occasional start. And his defense would be an improvement, not to mention his ability to work with a veteran staff. When it comes to maximizing all 25 spots, that’s the one that makes the most sense on paper.

Again, things could change between now and the end of the month. The good news is that the Cubs are playing like the team we thought we were going to see, which means there aren’t many flaws and they’ve generally got more than enough offense to paint over the ones that do appear.

Farm is just fine

Despite the big return, there was a fear among many that the Cubs had given up too much for Jose Quintana. Those fears were rooted less in the team’s immediate needs and more in the concept of not having top-100 prospects on various lists. It’s really kind of weird when you think about it, but there’s an undeniable appeal to the latent potential of minor-leaguers.

But Theo Epstein and his fellow decision-makers have drained the farm for all the right reasons over the last few years. With the big trades these last two seasons, it’s easy to focus on the guys the Cubs gave up. But you have to remember that most of the losses have been the Cubs’ gains. Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr., and Ian Happ were all top prospects at one time.

Epstein joined The Score’s Brian Hanley and Barry Rozner Wednesday morning to discuss the purpose and the state of the lower levels of the organization.

“I kind of laugh when people start to criticize the state of the farm system because the entire goal of a farm system is not to win Midwest League championships or Southern League championships or PCL championships,” Epstein explained. “The goal of the farm system is to get your players to the big league level so that they can win a world championship and take some of your prospects and trade them for big league players so you can win championships.”

Huh, sounds pretty much exactly like what they’ve done over the past few seasons. And with that impressive clutch of young talent the Cubs have in Chicago right now, they have all kinds of time to develop future waves. This isn’t a linear process and it’s not something that has to keep churning out one or two MLB-ready stars every season.

“It’s not a static thing,” Epstein continued. “It’s not frozen in time, where heaven forbid you trade a couple of prospects because you’re never going to have any again. No, you replenish and you move on.”

“…the best part of our farm system right now is at the lower levels, where the talent is emerging, and at the big leagues, where they’re all wearing rings.” Theo Epstein

Oh man, look at this guy just dropping truth bombs from the airwaves. And then came the mule kick to the solar plexus of those who would doubt what the Cubs have done.

“The best part of our farm system right now is at the lower levels, where the talent is emerging, and at the big leagues, where they’re all wearing rings.”


Stick the clutch

One of the most frequent laments throughout the first half was that the Cubs just couldn’t seem to push runs across with men in scoring position and/or with two outs. But much like the Brewers’ 5 1/2 game division lead, those complaints are fading fast.

Six of the runs in their 8-2 win on Wednesday came with two outs, giving them 20 two-out runs of the 44 total they’ve scored in this little win streak. They’re also .339 with RISP over the last six games. There’s really no magic to that and it’s really pretty arbitrary at this point, a matter of consequence.

All the same, good fortune is a lot easier to come by when your whole team is playing well. This isn’t a matter of two or three guys having to carry each game, but of everyone hitting all at once.

More news and notes

  • Pablo Sandoval may be headed back to San Francisco, but says he’s waiting until Friday to make a decision.
  • Chris Carter has signed a minor-league deal with the A’s.
  • The Braves say they intend to hold onto Matt Adams.
  • Milwaukee native Kato Kaelin continues to be very mad online over the Brewers.

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