The Cubs aren’t limiting their targets ahead of the Aug. 1 trade deadline to the much-needed bullpen help that tops their shopping list.
In fact, when Jason Hammel walked off the mound with a team trainer during Thursday night’s sixth inning, it only underscored why team president Theo Epstein says he also has starting pitching high on that list.
Hammel suffered hand cramping during his final start before the All-Star break and isn’t expected to miss a start.
But even on a night closer Hector Rondon blew a save in the ninth in another loss to a bad team, it was the uncertain, often fragile, nature of starting pitching that remained an important topic for the Cubs.
It’s been a big part of the talk around the team all week, with Adam Warren giving the rotation a one-day boost, and breather, with an impressive spot start Wednesday and Joe Maddon talking at length about trying to keep his starters rested and strong over the second half.
Outside help might be as much a factor in that effort as Warren – who likely is looking at another start soon after the break.
“The starting [pitching] market is a tough market,” Epstein said before the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Braves in 11 innings — their third straight loss and 13th in 18 games. “We are still looking for a starter for a couple reasons. For long term, we’re just not that deep organizationally in starting pitching, and because you can’t assume health.”
Or continued performance. Hammel, whose second-half struggles the last two years are well documented, pitched well after allowing a two-run homer in the first inning Thursday.
But even with decent pitching most of the night Thursday, the Cubs are struggling through their worst three-week stretch of the season as they head to Pittsburgh for the final three games before the All-Star break.
A Cubs rotation that looked historically good during the Cubs’ torrid two-month start to the season still leads the majors in ERA (2.90).
But during tho 5-13 stretch, the starters have a collective 5.49 ERA with nine of those starts lasting five innings or less.
Veteran John Lackey has faltered in recent weeks. Even ace Jake Arrieta is struggling enough with command that he’s had more five-inning starts than seven-inning starts over the last 2 ½ months.
“We’d love to have more starting depth,” Epstein said a few hours before Hammel took the mound Thursday coming off his worst start of the season (4-plus innings, 10 earned runs in New York).
It won’t be easy. And it may not even be possible, depending how aggressive the Cubs have to be in a bidding war if the Yankees, for instance, decide they’re willing to part with prized lefty reliever Andrew Miller, or even 100-mph lefty Aroldis Chapman.
The bigger problem in going after a starter is the lack of strong options this year. For now, the top pitcher on the market might be Athletics right-hander Sonny Gray, who has already spent time on the disabled list this season and struggled when healthy. And it’s not even clear whether Oakland is willing to trade its ace.
“It’s a tough market for starting pitching,” Epstein said. “There are teams that are in probably more desperate straits for a starter that may pay a higher price.
“We’re going to pursue all avenues.”
In that context, Warren’s impressive five innings against the Reds on Wednesday takes on more significance.
The Cubs acquired the swingman from the Yankees in a December trade for shortstop Starlin Castro with the long-term vision of Warren possibly becoming a productive National League starter.
And after a two-start stint in the minors to stretch out for Wednesday’s start, he began to resemble the four-pitch, good-command pitcher Cubs officials described when they made the trade.
“That’s the real Adam Warren,” Epstein said. “He pitched the way he was supposed to pitch.
“I was really encouraged by his performance yesterday,” he added. “That [sharpness] will help whether he continues in the rotation at some point or ends up back in the pen.”
They could have used him in the pen by the time the Cubs turned a rain-delayed game into a marathon night — eventually losing 4-3 in 11 innings on Tyler Flowers’ two-out, run-scoring single off Spencer Patton.
After trailing most of the game, the Cubs took the lead in the eighth on a three-run, two-run rally that started with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo both being hit by pitches. Ben Zobrist drove in one run with a double, and rookie Willson Contreras followed with a two-run triple.
After Rondon gave up the tying homer to Nick Markakis in the ninth, an inside pitch to Jeff Francoeur sent tempers flaring between the pitcher and batter, with Contreras, the catcher, having to be restrained as the benches emptied.
No punches were thrown and order was quickly restored.