It’s not too early for Cubs president Jed Hoyer to be thinking about the trade deadline


CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs have won ugly games, beaten strong teams and executed in difficult conditions. This good start is happening while key players are sidelined with injuries and the pitching staff is in scramble mode. That resiliency, however, will only go so far. It’s not too early for president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer to start thinking about the trade deadline.

“I don’t think you ever stop thinking about that,” Hoyer said. “Because that’s the job. You’re always kind of looking.”

Things are always changing throughout a 162-game season. A pitcher who looks like a trade target today might wind up needing Tommy John surgery tomorrow. A prospect who looks too raw at Double-A Tennessee or Triple-A Iowa could suddenly develop and make it to Chicago this summer. A player who looks out of sync one moment could figure something out and everything clicks.

The Cubs hope Adbert Alzolay and Kyle Hendricks are nearing those aha moments. Until then, Craig Counsell may not have a true closer, and Hoyer might need to make a difficult decision on the last player remaining from the 2016 World Series team. Given the renewed playoff expectations here, patience will not be unlimited.

Alzolay, who converted 22 of 25 save chances last year, already has four blown saves this season. The latest came during Saturday’s Game 1 loss in a Wrigley Field doubleheader that the Cubs split with the Miami Marlins. Counsell summoned Alzolay to try to get a four-out save and watched him escape the eighth inning unscathed. In the ninth inning, Bryan De La Cruz launched Alzolay’s 95 mph fastball into the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer, flipping a potential 2-1 win for the Cubs into a 3-2 loss.

Alzolay emerged as a homegrown success story last year, maturing out of the prospect stage and battling through injuries to become a vital part of the bullpen. Relievers, though, are inherently unpredictable from one year to the next. That’s why Hoyer looks at that area of the roster and usually avoids making big commitments.

It’s a small sample, but Alzolay has allowed four home runs and four walks in 10 innings. By comparison, he gave up only five home runs in 64 innings last season (when a strained right forearm sidelined him for most of September). He was supposed to thrive under the careful management of Counsell, whose Milwaukee Brewers teams controlled so many of those close games.

“We need Adbert to get outs,” Counsell said. “Regardless of where it is, we need Adbert to be an effective member of the bullpen. I strongly believe that he will be. It obviously stings when it comes at the end of the game there. But we need outs. And Adbert is going to get us big outs this year.”

The pressure is also on Hendricks to fix whatever mechanical flaws have led to an alarming spiral. This obviously isn’t another Game 7 situation, but Hendricks needs to pitch with conviction, stay out of predictable patterns and get much better results than the 12.71 ERA he’s carrying after four starts. Facing a bad Marlins team on Sunday afternoon at the Friendly Confines should be close to an ideal matchup.

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Kyle Hendricks leaves the field after allowing seven earned runs to the Padres in five innings on April 10. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

“Kyle needs a good start,” Counsell said. “He has had some slow starts, for sure, (throughout his career). I’m not sure what to make of that necessarily. I think Kyle knows he needs to pitch better. There are slow starts, but this is probably a little more than a slow start so far. I think he would tell you that.”

It’s not too soon to think that Hoyer’s front office will be canvassing the trade market for more pitching in the coming months. Counsell tries to communicate clearly with pitchers and give some definition to roles, but he’s not interested in labels or conventional wisdom. It’s all about staying flexible and being opportunistic to find the best ways to get 27 outs.

The Cubs are giving themselves a chance, showing some of the resourcefulness needed to get to October. Justin Steele and Jameson Taillon, the club’s leaders in innings pitched last year, have started only two of the team’s first 21 games. Julian Merryweather, a top reliever last season, is on the 60-day injured list with a rib stress fracture.

The lineup is dealing with the absence of Seiya Suzuki, who’s on the injured list with a strained right oblique. Ian Happ also sat out Saturday’s doubleheader while dealing with left hamstring tightness. For all of their Gold Glove defenders, the Cubs are only a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of defensive efficiency, and on the negative side of defensive runs saved. Things have gone wrong and the Cubs are still 13-8.

“The hope is that you get to a point where you are playing cleaner,” Hoyer said. “You get healthy and you get on a little bit of a roll. But so much of what is valuable in this sport is the ability to win series and kind of grind it out when you’re not at your best. That’s been impressive so far.”

Shota Imanaga’s first impression has been dazzling. He did not allow his first earned run until the fourth inning of his fourth major-league start. His quality start allowed the offense to come back for Saturday night’s 5-3 win in Game 2. He has a 0.84 ERA and 21 strikeouts against two walks through 21 1/3 innings. The Cubs are 4-0 in his starts. His transition from Japan is becoming the best-case scenario.

The trade deadline is still three-plus months away. Counsell doesn’t want to hear about injuries or look too far ahead. He called on rookie swingman Ben Brown to replace Imanaga, cover two innings and get the ball to veteran reliever Héctor Neris for the save. The highest-paid manager in the game is supposed to solve problems.

“We’ve got to play the games in front of us with the roster we have,” Counsell said. “That just means go out and play a good game. And try not to think beyond that and go beyond that. Because that’s what’s in front of us. This is our group today. Let’s go attack it.”

(Top photo of Adbert Alzolay pitching in the ninth inning of the Cubs’ 3-2 loss on April 20: Patrick Gorski / USA Today)





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