By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) “July is a month full of conversations.”
While Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was referring to possible trade talks Thursday, the current conversations among most observing his team involve various profanities and Monster’s Ball-style begging to feel good. Epstein usually has a knack for taking all the nerdery that got him to a baseball executive position in Boston and then Chicago and speaking to us normies in a way that leaves us feeling both a little smarter and a little more confident in what he and his front office army are doing.
So, Theo, how are the phone calls going with other teams to fix the middling Cubs, who just can’t seem to pull themselves out of a .500 tar pit?
“This is largely the same club that averaged 100 wins a year over the last two years,” Epstein told reporters. “There’s not a player we realistically can bring in from the outside that’s going to spur us to play at that level. We’re going to get to a point of playing at that level because of the guys who are here.
“Of course, we’re going to work hard and do what we can to improve the team. It may happen; it may not happen. But the biggest fixes rest in the talented players that we have.”
And the cartoon image of the smiling dog in the burning house thinking “This is fine” flashes through many of our heads. It’s easy to hear what Epstein said and knee-jerk, “Are you daft?” How can the Cubs possibly stand pat with this roster while in their window for that “sustained success” the organization has talked about since the rebuild? How can a roster that has shown you for half the season that it’s capable of mediocre output possibly magically become something different on its own? What about the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, who are reportedly set to buy at the trade deadline? Epstein is clearly wrong to minimize what an obviously needed trade or four can do for this team, right?
At some point — even after building a World Series-winning team — we’ll start trusting Epstein. Guess we’re not quite there yet.
The time for stroking you and cooing that the Cubs are fine has passed. I’ve already done it. It’s been done nationally. The Sun-Times mocked it. Clearly, the Cubs aren’t fine, and the massacre they experienced at the hands of the Brewers on Thursday drove that home a bit more.
Maybe the Cubs aren’t the great team of 2016 for myriad reasons. But maybe that’s OK.
For all the jaw-dropping flaws that were assets on this club a year ago — starting pitching, various players’ bats going ghost, defense — it makes no sense to think what was inarguably MLB’s most talented roster can permanently deflate. Baseball is weird in small doses but consistent overall. Logic dictates that without major sustained injuries, a young team doesn’t crystallize from 100-win ball to .500 ball.
“I don’t think we’ve established our identity yet,” Epstein said last week. “I don’t think we’ve found our edge yet that we’ll need to play with to win games. Wins don’t just happen because you’re talented and you show up. You have to come to the park with an edge every day and come together as a team and play together to win and play with a certain edge. We’re going to find it.”
Besides noting publicly that the team hasn’t played with “edge,” the front office’s willingness to demote Kyle Schwarber to Triple-A and to part ways with veteran Miguel Montero after he bus-tossed a teammate in the media show that they have no problem rattling cages and aren’t resting on laurels. Still, injecting something new at the trade deadline just feels like it’s supposed to be done. But like Epstein said, who are the Cubs going to acquire that’s going to drastically shift this team? You want to overpay for a Justin Verlander in the deep autumn of his baseball years because you know his name?
That’s not how the Cubs operate.
A minor deal or two will likely be made. But saying that the Cubs will live or die with what they already have isn’t all that crazy, especially when the talent is there, dormant as it may currently be in the likes of Schwarber and Addison Russell and the seven times this team has been shut out this season.
“We’re really talented, and we’re not playing well,” Epstein told the Spiegel & Parkins Show on Friday morning. “It’s as simple as that.”
He later added, “There’s a lot of randomness wrapped up in why we’re not playing well.”
And in this period of planned sustained success, the Cubs still have to keep in mind their minor league assets that aren’t just possible trade chips but potential parts of winning in blue pinstripes down the line.
“You can get yourself in trouble when you tell yourself you have to force something,” Epstein said.
What Epstein knows about the projections for the rest of this season are what has Fangraphs currently putting the Cubs at about a 73 precent chance of making the playoffs, with the Brewers and Cardinals both at 27 percent. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections also have the Cubs and their ugly, no-good roster winning their division. Computers and math don’t play the games, of course, but there’s a reason they exist in the 21st-century baseball conversation.
The Cubs have the easiest remaining strength of schedule in all of baseball besides that of the Los Angeles Dodgers (as if they need it easy). Looking ahead, 40 of the Cubs’ remaining 77 games are against division opponents, beginning Friday with the Pirates. The Cubs’ division record entering Friday is 21-15, which is the best in the NL Central and behind only the Nationals and Dodgers for best in the NL. This current trash Cubs team still has the opportunity to eat well close to home like they’ve already been doing.
Maybe the Cubs are what they are. And maybe the boss letting us know that there’s no magic pill out there is also letting his players know that it’s largely up to them.
“We spend just as much time talking about how we can make improvements from within, to put guys maybe in a little bit different position,” Epstein said. “But there’s not going to be a fundamental shift in the player personnel we have. We really like our club. We don’t like the way we’ve played to date.”
That sounds like he’s speaking to players in the locker room as much or more than media and fans. And if that message is being put out there publicly, best know it’s being conveyed more intimately to the people in gloves and cleats.
Maybe some different motivation takes hold as the Cubs head into the All-Star break that will see all but Wade Davis get a rest that I heard this week that baseball players don’t deserve. Some head clearing and reset-button pressing should be in order. Second halves of seasons have a habit of being different animals, regardless of changes in personnel, but even a slight uptick in play can have major effects on the Cubs’ postseason potential.
The Cubs aren’t great and likely aren’t going to get to great between now and October. But maybe the panicky July conversations that turn to October conversations will somewhere in between become conversations about not being great still being OK enough.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.