A day after Cubs manager Joe Maddon seemed to lobby for the front office to add a veteran hitter by the trade deadline July 31, the ball was back in his court to keep winning and help define the needs when talks heat up closer to that date.
‘‘The more players you have playing well and the better you’re playing as a team, the more you can kind of focus on certain specific needs,’’ team president Theo Epstein said Monday. ‘‘And that’s certainly what we’re doing.
‘‘We’re always trying to look for any area to upgrade that’s realistic and keeping the bigger picture in mind, too. Where we are in the division really matters. And we’d love to continue to get some separation if we can.’’
In other words, it might be too early to know what the priorities and prices might be closer to the deadline, never mind which teams are certain buyers or certain sellers. So for now, it’s just win, baby.
Coming off a sweep of the Pirates out of the All-Star break, the Cubs took a 2½-game lead over the Brewers in the National League Central into their series opener Monday against the Reds at Wrigley Field. After a 6-3 loss, their lead was two games over the Cardinals, who leapfrogged the Brewers for second.
After Monday, the Cubs had 12 games left before the trade deadline. That’s an eternity for a team less than 10 games above .500 in a league with only one true tanker, perhaps as few as two certain sellers and every team in the majors jockeying for the best seat at the table for what promises to be a final-week flurry of trading.
‘‘Prices are normally high at this point in the month; they get a little bit more realistic later,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘But there’s a lot of conversation. Every team’s involved in one way or another at this point.’’
The Cubs have been on the buyer side, even as they approached the All-Star break road-weary and struggling. A 22-run series in a defensively sharp weekend against the Pirates only strengthened that position — for now.
‘‘We looked more like ourselves, and it’s good to see,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘We’re not going to go pat ourselves on the back. That’s the first series we’ve won in a month. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.’’
A shutdown left-hander for the bullpen remains high on the Cubs’ wish list. But don’t count on Brad Hand to be available the way the Indians have played the last five or six weeks. And the Giants, who are in last place in the NL West, even might have second thoughts about dealing Will Smith after winning 10 of their last 12 games.
On Sunday, Maddon talked about his desire for a hitter like missing veteran Ben Zobrist, who has been on personal leave since early May and likely won’t be back until close to Sept. 1 — if he’s back at all this season, that is.
‘‘We’ll see,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘I think [Maddon is] just talking about the offense.’’
Either way, with only one trade deadline this season, Epstein expects more attention to detail as activity ramps up.
‘‘Teams need to keep depth in mind a little bit more,’’ said Epstein, who lauded the seasons several depth options have had at Class AAA Iowa. ‘‘But there are areas where we’d like to shore it up, as well, perhaps from the outside.’’