A tougher schedule out of the All-Star break? The wrong injury? A different response to four days off in mid-July?
The Cubs were that close. Under any of those circumstances, Monday’s trade deadline might have been an emotional gut punch and a reason to make vacation plans in October instead of an emotional lift for the clubhouse and a reason to muse over the possibility of playing again in November.
“Our players deserve the credit,” said team president Theo Epstein, who added late-inning reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila in a trade with the Tigers less than 20 hours before the deadline. “If we hadn’t had that [hot] stretch [after the break], and if we had continued to play tough baseball, we might have been on the other end of some deals. It’s a credit to the way our players responded from the All-Star break. That’s really the reason why we went out and did what we did.”
That’s not idle talk or after-the-fact overstatement — not with labor-contract factors in play for the first time this year. Shopping Wade Davis, John Lackey and Jake Arrieta — all pending free agents — were real options as the Cubs evaluated the deadline in early July.
The Cubs were two games under .500 and 5½ games behind the Brewers in the National League Central at the break, 88 games into the season.
“If we had fallen eight, nine out, we certainly would have been looking at considering moving some of the players who were rentals,” Epstein said. “But we immediately played great out of the stretch and didn’t have to head down that road, which you obviously never want to go down.”
Changes taking effect this year with the new collective-bargaining agreement include more severe restrictions on overspending for international amateurs and a severe reduction in draft-pick compensation for teams that exceeded the payroll “luxury tax” level the previous season.
The Cubs exceeded that threshold in 2016 for the first time in franchise history. That meant any draft-pick compensation for losing a qualifying free agent would have come after the fourth round of the next draft instead of being assured of coming before the second round.
“With the CBA the way it is, contending teams, when they have an off year, have to take a hard look at selling in a given year because it’s important to recoup young talent whenever you have the opportunity to do so,” Epstein said. “You never want to be in that situation, but it forces you to be realistic if you are.”
The Cubs avoided that by sweeping their first two series out of the break and winning 13 of 16 games through Sunday, when Epstein’s front office pulled off the trade with the Tigers after casting a wide net for relievers and catchers, including Orioles closer Zach Britton and Marlins catcher A.J. Ellis.
The Cubs took a 2½-game division lead over the second-place Brewers into Tuesday’s series opener against the Diamondbacks.
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