It took less than two weeks out of the All-Star break for the Cubs to catch the Brewers in the National League Central.
Did it take only a few hours Sunday for them to catch the Dodgers and Astros as World Series front-runners?
Maybe if the starters keep pitching like they have since the break (11-1, 2.53 ERA) and if Anthony Rizzo’s sore back doesn’t turn out to be serious.
What’s certain is that the question resonates with a lot more credibility after the Cubs closed the deal late Sunday with the Tigers and landed closer Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila.
And even though the Dodgers — already on a 114-win pace — counterpunched Monday by landing three pitchers, including Yu Darvish, just before the trade deadline, the Cubs had one of the best Julys in baseball
With the acquisition of Jose Quintana from the White Sox at the break, the Cubs got one of the best available starting pitchers, even before landing one of the market’s top relievers and the catcher they prioritized.
World Series or bust?
“We’ve got three teams we have to hold off to win the division,” general manager Jed Hoyer said after the deadline passed Monday afternoon. “That’s our focus. A team that was two games under .500 two weeks ago can’t be looking ahead [to October].”
Yet the moves for Quintana and Wilson in particular were made looking even further ahead.
While significantly strengthening a team trying to become the first since 2001 to repeat as World Series champion, both pitchers are under club control through next year as well — Quintana through 2020.
Wilson, a 29-year-old left-hander with 13 saves and a 2.68 ERA, could be an option for the ’18 closer job, with 2017 All-Star Wade Davis expected to depart as a free agent.
“We think we’ve strengthened ourselves for the pennant race and also gave ourselves a lot more stability and certainty for 2018 and beyond,” said Hoyer, who added that the club checked on some rent-a-pitchers before sticking with their desire to avoid the short-term-only moves.
Already with all their top draft picks from 2011 through ’15 on the roster, the Cubs emptied their farm system of most of the other “name” hitting prospects they had left, including Eloy Jimenez in the Quintana deal and switch-hitting infielder Jeimer Candelario in the deal with the Tigers.
The Cubs also sent promising Class A shortstop Isaac Paredes to the Tigers, along with a player to be named or cash.
“Our guys do a great job of recognizing our need, then not being afraid to go out and get it, at the expense sometimes of giving up prospects,” said manager Joe Maddon, whose bullpen now boasts four pitchers with recent full-time success as closers — including the high-leverage left-hander it has been without since Aroldis Chapman’s brief and spectacular run late last season.
“If you have multiple late-inning, high-leverage kinds of dudes at the end of the game, then you don’t burn anybody’s candle out,” Maddon said. “And you can’t do that because we still have a couple of months left.’’
Avila, a hit-first, receive-second catcher with a strong clubhouse presence, fills the veteran spot vacated when Miguel Montero was jettisoned last month for critical comments about Jake Arrieta.
Quintana already has energized the clubhouse and the rotation since his arrival, going 2-1 with a 2.37 ERA in three starts.
Said pitcher Mike Montgomery of the July trades: “It puts everyone in a place where the clubhouse knows that we’re fighting for a World Series again.”
To make room on the 40-man roster for Sunday’s additions, right-hander Dylan Flora was designated for assignment (Candelario cleared the other spot).
The club plans to option rookie catcher Victor Caratini to Class AAA Iowa to make room on the 25-man roster, with the other corresponding 25-man move expected to be announced before the series opener Tuesday night against the Diamondbacks.
Barring a DL move, the Cubs are expected to option a reliever to Iowa, possibly Justin Grimm.
Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.