NEW YORK – No matter what the New York Yankees are saying internally about what it would take to wrest away a relief stud like Andrew Miller, or what the New York media continues to write almost daily, the Cubs have no intention of trading Theo Epstein favorite Kyle Schwarber.
Epstein, the Cubs’ team president, said it loudly and clearly again Thursday from a dugout perch in the city that never sleeps when it comes to the Schwarber rumors:
“I’m looking forward to Kyle Schwarber, who got hurt in a Cubs uniform, and is working is ass off in a Cubs uniform to come back, hitting a very big home run in a Cubs uniform sometime very early next season,” he said.
Schwarber, who’s recovering from a season-ending knee injury, is viewed as a future emotional tone-setter and leader of the clubhouse, in addition to an elite left-handed power hitter.
He’s an organizational favorite after being identified early in the 2014 draft process, getting selected fourth overall to the surprise of many in the industry and getting to the big-leagues in just 12 months — making him as close to untouchable as any of the under-25 kids who don’t already have “Rookie of the Year” stamped on their resumes.
For a team that already has been working aggressively in the pitching trade market, that’s just one reason the Cubs might be left trying to make bullpen fixes with a series of smaller deals, as they did last year, instead of a bona fide trading deadline deal.
Other reasons: It’s not clear at this point whether the Yankees will trade away any of their valuable back-end bullpen arms; the competition could be especially fierce even if they do make, say, rent-a-lefty Aroldis Chapman available; and the market already got depleted Thursday alone by Oakland’s Sean Doolittle going on the DL and San Diego trading Fernando Rodney to Miami.
“We’re talking to clubs, just trying to see who might be available and where we might have matches,” Epstein said. “But there’s nothing real imminent.
“Despite the trades [Thursday, which also starter Bud Norris from the Braves to the Dodgers], it might end up being more of a slow-developing market,” he added. “We’ll see. We’re not close to anything.”
Epstein’s team showed again Thursday night why it needs late-inning help, with newly applied Band Aid Joel Peralta in the center of the seventh-inning storm that led to three Mets runs and a 4-3 loss in New York.
But Epstein cautioned against expecting a top-shelf, “name” acquisition even if the team plays out the market all the way down to the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
“Usually if something seems like a pipe dream, it often is,” he said. “You don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to helping your club down the stretch.
“But it also makes sense to be patient because your own needs evolve quite a bit, too. It also gives you a chance to find internal solutions.”
Two of those potential solutions are in-season acquisitions Joe Nathan, the six-time All-Star righty closer, and Brian Matusz, the once-promising, productive lefty who is being stretched out in Arizona possible starting or swingman roles.
Nathan, 41, has made three minor-league rehab appearances for AA Tennessee as he finishes up the final stages of his comeback from early 2015 Tommy John surgery. He has three strikeouts, no walks and allowed only one hit in those three innings (a solo homer). He could be in the Cubs’ bullpen within three weeks.
Matusz, 29, who was dumped by two teams this season after struggling early, is undergoing an overhaul in Mesa, Ariz., with organizational instructors. “He went back to basics, started from scratch, building himself up,” Epstein said. “He’s throwing really well, four pitches for strikes. It’s encouraging.
“We’ll see where that goes,” Epstein said, adding that lefty Jack Leathersich, a Mets rookie last year, who’s also in the final stages of Tommy John rehab “could conceivably be a factor for us later in the season as well.”
It may not be the kind of answers the fan base wants to hear as questions increase over the current group. But the Cubs dramatically improved last year’s bullpen late with such under-the-radar acquisitions of Trevor Cahill, Clayton Richard and Fernando Rodney – at the same time swinging and missing on Rafael Soriano and a handful of minor-league flyers that didn’t reach the Cubs pen.
“It usually happens that way,” Epstein said. “If you look at it, it’s pretty rare that you rebuild the bullpen midseason through big-ticket items. It just doesn’t often happen that way. Last year was actually more typical. And they don’t all work out – that’s not what I’m saying. But if you have a plan and a process and you’re willing to kind of cycle through guys and willing to ride things out, you often get rewarded in the end.”
Certainly there aren’t any guarantees if you land the bigger ticket guy. The Pirates got Tigers closer Joakim Soria at the deadline last year, and he was productive for a playoff team. The Nationals, on the other hand, got former World Series closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies, and he did little except embarrass the team with a caught-on-camera choking of MVP Bryce Harper as they faded from the playoff race.
“For a postseason bullpen, if you’re thinking that far ahead, you’re not talking about eight guys,” Epstein said. “You’re talking about three or four guys you can really lean on heavily.
“It’s about being open minded,” he said. “Being willing to let guys ride through their downturns and make adjustments so they can find it when it matters is important.”
Especially if you’re not willing to trade Schwarber for Miller.