As the clocked ticked inside 96 hours before baseball’s trading deadline, the Cubs appeared even less likely to pull off a big-splash trade for the likes of a Cole Hamels or a James Shields as they continue efforts to trade for a starting pitcher.
“I don’t necessarily think we’re close to trading for a big contract,” team president Theo Epstein said Monday, still smarting from a weekend sweep at the hands of the worst team in baseball – including being no-hit by the Phillies’ Hamels on Saturday.
“Certainly, in our position, right now it’s not necessarily something we’re close to – giving up a ton of talent and taking on a big contract. Maybe that changes between now and Friday, but right now we’re not close to something like that.”
The Cubs’ “position” includes a tight payroll budget that has less than $5 million of remaining flexibility, which makes Hamels and the $84 million left on his deal (almost $8 million this year) impossible to acquire without getting the Phillies to pick up salary (and, consequently, paying more in a player/prospect package).
The Cubs could fall back on one of their old trading-partner standbys: GM Jed Hoyer’s old San Diego Padres, with whom they’ve already been linked in rumors — including shortstop Starlin Castro. The Padres have several potential available pitchers, ranging from rent-a-player Ian Kennedy to former Cubs free agent target Shields to 28-year-old 2014 All-Star Tyson Ross, who has another year of club control left.
The Cubs tried to get Shields last winter for a three-year, $60 million deal that would have been creatively structured and back-loaded. His four-year, $75-million Padres deal also is back-loaded, potentially fitting the Cubs on the front end (about $3 million the rest of this season) but with $65 million guaranteed over the next three years.
If the Cubs are able to solve their rotation issues at all from the outside, it seemed with four days left that it was more likely to happen through a rent-a-pitcher along the lines of Kennedy, Dan Haren or Marlins teammate Mat Latos.
The Cubs also are looking for a hitter to boost a sagging lineup, preferably a versatile defensive player. Joe Maddon favorite Ben Zobrist of the Athletics – whom the Cubs tried to acquire from Tampa Bay before the A’s landed him last winter – is No. 1 on that wish list. And the Cubs have inquired on him ever since the A’s got off to a slow start the first two months of the season.
But Epstein didn’t sound optimistic Monday when talking about the likelihood of getting any hitter by Friday’s deadline. And other teams are said to be more aggressive in pursuing Zobrist.
“It’s not a great market for position players,” Epstein said. “But we have the opportunity to upgrade the fifth starter position, whether someone wants to step up internally – great. Or a more obvious path would be to do a trade. And that’s something we’d like to do.
“We’ve certainly looked into deals where we acquire a veteran position player, too. Multi-positional would be great. But we have some flexibility on the roster. For a rally good position player we’d be willing to give up a lot. For someone who’s not as sure a thing to help us, we’d be more reasonable in what we give up.
Even before Monday’s victory over the Colorado Rockies on Kris Bryant’s walk-off home run in the ninth, Epstein said the recent struggles of the club – which fell out of playoff position with the lost weekend against the Phillies – would not influence the front office’s efforts or intentions this week.
“We were in a competitive race for the postseason a week ago, two weeks ago and we still are today,” he said. “We’re just in a little bit worse position than we were. But that shouldn’t surprise anybody that we’re going to have down stretches. It’s our job to pull ourselves out of it.”
Asked specifically about Hamels – a Cubs target since long before they claimed him off waivers last August (without striking a deal) – Epstein didn’t rule out a late-breaking deal of any kind.
“Deadlines always are there for a reason. There’s always a flurry of activity right before the deadline,” he said. “Teams bargaining positions tend to move towards the middle the closer you get to the deadline.”