Little has gone right in recent weeks for the Cubs, who fell to 22-28 in their past 50 games with yet another defeat Wednesday. Chicago dropped its fourth straight game overall and third in a row against the Pirates, though the stage was set for a Cubs victory. Leading 5-4 entering the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs had newly signed closer Craig Kimbrel in line to slam the door. Instead, Kimbrel allowed two earned runs on a walk and a double en route to a 6-5 defeat. It was the second straight less-than-ideal showing for Kimbrel, who hasn’t turned in a clean performance in any of his three appearances since the Cubs activated him June 27.
Signing Kimbrel to a three-year, $43MM contract was a bold strike by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, an attempt to inject some much-needed life into the club. The move hasn’t done the trick to this point, though. Neither have multiple team meetings in recent days, as Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com detailed after its 18-5 loss in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
With the Cubs having floundered since May, their front office is running out of patience as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. Epstein took to WSCR-AM 670 on Wednesday and stated there could be a “ton” of changes, even threatening to sell this month, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times and Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune were among those to cover. Epstein called the Cubs’ recent skid “not acceptable,” adding, “There have been too many words about it and not enough action.”
Epstein didn’t excuse manager Joe Maddon from blame, saying “all of us haven’t done the job.” On the field, Epstein pointed to “sloppy” base running and defense as reasons for the team’s slump. Epstein must have been apoplectic Wednesday night when a pair of defensive miscues with one out in the ninth helped sink the Cubs. Catcher Willson Contreras, who was playing right field, failed to come up with a bloop fly ball. Then, with Pirates catcher Elias Diaz on third, Cubs second baseman Addison Russell fielded a grounder and fired home instead of taking the easy out at first. Diaz beat the throw, tying the game, and the Pirates later triumphed on a Corey Dickerson sacrifice fly.
The Cubs sit a lukewarm 45-42 on the heels of their latest loss, yet they’re still in wild-card position and a mere game back of the NL Central-leading Brewers. The fact that the NL features far more middling teams than juggernauts has been a saving grace for the Cubs. However, that’s not going to cut it for Epstein, who has important choices to make in the coming weeks.
As things stand, the Cubs still seem far more likely to buy than sell, especially after having signed Kimbrel. The team could reasonably look to make upgrades throughout its roster. Even with Kimbrel in the fold, the Cubs’ relief corps has done little to inspire confidence aside from Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler and Kyle Ryan. The Cubs’ rotation took a significant hit when Cole Hamels went on the injured list with a left oblique strain last weekend, though there’s optimism he won’t miss a ton of time. Regardless, the club’s starting staff has been shaky beyond Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester. Fellow established starters Yu Darvish and Jose Quintana haven’t come close to meeting expectations this season.
Statistically, the Cubs’ position players rank sixth in the majors in fWAR, but that doesn’t mean the group is devoid of issues. Among regulars, Contreras, third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant, shortstop Javier Baez, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, outfielder Jason Heyward and utilityman David Bote have all ranged from fine to excellent this year. On the other hand, when the Cubs haven’t used Bote at second, they’ve gotten little at the position from Russell, Daniel Descalso and Ben Zobrist. They promoted 26-year-old rookie Robel Garcia on Wednesday as a result. Center fielder Albert Almora has joined Descalso and Zobrist in struggling at the plate (especially against lefties). Adding to the disappointment, left fielder Kyle Schwarber hasn’t hit like the offensive cornerstone Epstein & Co. have regarded him as throughout his career.
Second base and the outfield may end up as areas the Cubs try to bolster this month, but Zobrist’s potential return complicates matters. Although Zobrist has been on the restricted list since May 7 as he deals with a divorce, Epstein indicated Wednesday he expects the 38-year-old infielder/outfielder to rejoin the team at some point. The Cubs have saved approximately $1MM per month during the absence of Zobrist, who’s on a $12.5MM salary in the last year of his contract. Zobrist’s disappearance helped the Cubs gather up the funds for Kimbrel, though they’ve largely shied away from spending since last offseason. Epstein has said the Cubs usually have “significant” money saved for in-season pickups, though, which implies a Zobrist comeback wouldn’t hinder their deadline plans from a financial standpoint. Even if it doesn’t, the Cubs will need vintage Zobrist to return – not the version who showed absolutely no power over 99 plate appearances before he took his leave.
Just as Epstein is optimistic Zobrist will put on a Cubs uniform again this season, he expects injured reliever Brandon Morrow to factor into their bullpen. Morrow was a highly valuable member of the Cubs’ relief corps in 2018, but elbow problems put an end to his season in mid-July. While the oft-injured 34-year-old has been throwing in Arizona lately as he tries to work back, per Gonzales, there’s still no clear timetable for a return.
The sliding Cubs play one more in Pittsburgh before a two-game road set against the White Sox over the weekend. After the All-Star break, they’ll face their four division foes – the Pirates, Reds, Brewers and Cardinals – as well as the playoff-contending Padres a combined 15 times in 18 games through Aug. 1. That stretch may wind up having a lot of say in how the frustrated Epstein handles the deadline.