Cubs

Why the Cubs’ top trade-deadline acquisitions might already have been made

SAN DIEGO — Manny Machado? Jacob deGrom? Brad Hand?

More like Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish and Brian Duensing.

With barely two weeks to go before the trade deadline July 31, the Cubs are talking with every team that’s offering pitching, starters and relievers.

But manager Joe Maddon and the front office say the biggest acquisitions to put them over the top are likely to come in the form of players returning to full health or returning to form after first-half struggles.

Will this guy be the Cubs' biggest acquisition of the summer trading period? #MakesYuWonder

One of the most important of those is Bryant, who returned from a shoulder injury Wednesday and homered in a 13-inning loss in San Francisco.

Another is left-hander Duensing, a key part of the bullpen’s success last year. He returned Friday after two weeks on the disabled list because of shoulder fatigue.

“And especially a guy like Darvish for me,” Maddon said, “because he really has not had the chance to blossom here yet. And what he’s capable of doing is so high-end. It’s hard to find any of those just out there right now anywhere.

“If we get Yu back clicking like he’s capable of, that truly is a wonderful deadline-kind of acquisition.”

The Cubs have no idea when that will be after Darvish’s setback with elbow discomfort and subsequent cortisone injection two weeks ago. He barely has begun playing catch again as the Cubs hope for a return sometime in August.

Meanwhile, team president Theo Epstein’s front office keeps working the iPhones, although with little chance of landing one of the elite starters available, such as the Mets’ deGrom or Noah Syndergaard, as they dive into depth possibilities and bullpen help.

Padres All-Star closer Hand, who has two more years of club control after this season, would be a dream acquisition. But that’s the case for about 10 other contenders, too.

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The Cubs are expected to add at least one pitcher in the next two weeks.

But the factors that could determine how this season will finish almost certainly will come down to whether Jon Lester can sustain his All-Star form, whether Darvish can return and pitch like the supposed top free-agent pitcher last winter and whether Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana can pitch more like they did in their starts in San Francisco (no earned runs in a combined 14⅓ innings) than they did during an up-and-down first half.

Even Tyler Chatwood, who started Friday, could have an acquisition-like impact if he finally can reduce the cartoonish walk rate that in three months has turned him from a promising fifth starter into an afterthought.

Sixth starter Mike Montgomery already is in full-rotation mode for the foreseeable future, and top prospect Adbert Alzolay — who was in line to debut this season — is out for the year with a lat strain.

It has put the Cubs in such constant pursuit of depth that ex-Cub Casey Coleman —who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014 — recently was signed to a minor-league contract.

Epstein even has left open the possibility that left-hander Drew Smyly, who was signed to a two-year deal in December during his rehab from Tommy John surgery, might make his anticipated return in late August or September as a starter instead of the original plan to have him finish the year as a reliever.

“We’re probably going to stretch him out on the rehab assignment, regardless, and see how he’s feeling and see what our needs are when he comes back,” said Epstein, who originally had Smyly’s first Cubs start penciled in for next season.

All of which underscores why last week Epstein said the team still was assessing its trade needs.

“You’re always looking to fortify and to add a little bit,” Epstein said. “And you always have Plan B and Plan C in case of injury or really bad performance. But there’s no way we’re going to acquire starters the caliber of a locked-in Kyle Hendricks or a locked-in Jose Quintana.

“The majority of our answers lie within, for sure.”