The Rundown: Two Weeks That Determined Cubs’ Season, Braves Mess Goes Beyond Atlanta

The Cubs were struggling and Theo Epstein said it was all his fault. This was nearly two weeks after Epstein had sent a message to the Cubs by unceremoniously designating Miguel Montero for assignment following the catcher’s rant about how it was his pitcher’s fault that he couldn’t throw out baserunners. The goal was to ignite the tinder lying dormant at the heart of his team by removing an incendiary force that could have set them ablaze from the inside.

I know that was a really weird metaphor that probably seems contradictory, but I like it.

But the gambit didn’t really work, at least not immediately. The Cubs went 3-5 over their next eight games and found themselves a game below .500 heading into the final weekend of the first half, 4 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the Central. Certainly not time to fly the L, but not necessarily the kind of performance that had everyone thinking they were ready to take off.

Epstein remained positive, remained his typical transparent self, but the big takeaway from his July 7 appearance on the Spiegel and Parkins Show was that the Cubs could become sellers.

“So if things take a horrible turn from here, I guess anything’s possible,” Epstein said. “But realistically, we’re in it. There’s virtually no scenario I can envision in which we’re sort of…in which we wave the white flag on the season.”

As Kevin Garnett could probably have told you, the shiny object of “anything’s possible” distracted a lot of folks from the real meat of Epstein’s interview. And that’s the thing about the Cubs’ baseball boss, he always tells you exactly what he’s going to do. And he had done just that prior to the talk of possibly selling.

“We’d love to provide help,” Epstein admitted. “And we’re working hard every single day. We might make a trade, we might make three huge trades, we might make no trades, we might make two small trades. We don’t know. You have no idea what the marketplace is going to be.”

As Patrick Mooney laid out in great detail, the marketplace — and, more importantly, the Cubs’ role in it — was defined when Epstein got a text from White Sox GM Rick Hahn. Coming off of a pair of losses to the Pirates, including a 14-3 drubbing that saw Jon Lester allow 10 runs in 2/3 of an inning, the Cubs were two games under and 5 1/2 back heading into the break. It was the perfect time to make a splash.

After being 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers at the break, the Cubs spent only 11 days out of first place in the second half of the season.

You know the rest by now, how the Cubs spun off their two top prospects for Jose Quintana and ended up moving into a first-place tie nine days into the second half. They would move into sole possession of the division lead a month after dropping Montero, maintaining that standing save for falling into a tie for one day on August 12. After being 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers at the break, the Cubs spent only 11 days out of first place in the second half of the season. That’s kind of crazy.

None of this is necessarily new or revelatory, but I found myself hearkening back to it after seeing Mooney’s story and thinking about that really disappointing stretch there at the end of the first half. While a great deal more happened to get them to where they are now, that two week period between Miggy mouthing off and Hahn tapping out a text (which we will presume was shorter than those we’ll get to in a bit) was pivotal for the Cubs. It was hard to see at the time, but hindsight has a funny way of correcting our vision.

The Cubs could have given up and the front office could have spun off Wade Davis and/or Jake Arrieta during that time. Calls for them to do exactly that weren’t uncommon and no one would have been entirely shocked had they taken that tack.

Aren’t you glad they didn’t?

Braves in deep doo doo

I’m not going to get into all the misdeeds of former Braves GM John Coppolella, but suffice to say they are many and varied. In addition to apparently being one of the world’s biggest a-holes, Coppolella engaged in tampering with MLB players and presided over a systematic circumvention of international bonus rules that could be even bigger than what was orchestrated by the Red Sox not too long ago.

Perhaps his most egregious transgressions involved sending 2,000-plus word text messages to fellow GMs, as Yahoo’s Jeff Passan reported (and there’s much more in there, so check it out). To put that in context, consider that this column will run about 1,300 words. Imagine having the temerity to send a text like that to someone.

We haven’t heard the last of this and you can bet the Braves organization will be reeling for quite a while from the fallout. The waves could even reach several more clubs, as Ken Rosenthal reports (subscription required) that nearly half the teams in the league may have illicit deals with ineligible foreign players. Coppolella’s flagrant abuse of the rules and his overall disdainful behavior likely make it much worse for the Braves, but this is not confined to Atlanta.

You may be wondering what this has to do with the Cubs and the answer is probably nothing, at least not when it comes to the specifics of the matter at hand. It should be noted, however, that they have been very active in the past when it comes to the international market and they’ve dealt with bonus restrictions. At the same time, they appear to be getting around the limits more creatively, like looking to Mexico to leverage loopholes created by the player’s club getting a big cut of his take.

And it’s possible there could be something of a ripple effect when it comes to their future endeavors, some of which will overlap those of other teams.

This makes two high-profile organizations that have been busted for trying to get around the IFA bonus rules, rules that are even more structured under the new CBA. So you can be damn sure MLB is going to be keeping very close tabs on an upcoming market that includes the most hyped, most enigmatic international free agent in a very long time. Maybe ever, all things considered.

Shohei Otani may be willing to give up a massive contract to come over to the US a couple years early, but teams will need to be careful about even the perception of impropriety when dealing with him. Or maybe I’m just seeing ghosts in the shadows.

More news and notes

  • With managerial spots likely to open in the next couple weeks, it’s a good bet that Cubs bench coach Davey Martinez will finally get his shot. He’s interviewed for several openings in the past but has remained by Joe Maddon’s side when nothing panned out. It’ll be interesting to see whether and how Martinez’s potential departure impacts Maddon’s strategy, or whether that’s something Mike Borzello is more responsible for.
  • The Cardinals were competitive into the last week of the season, a fact their Twitter account was happy to make followers aware of, but they’ll need to reconfigure some things in the offseason. That probably doesn’t mean moving Dexter Fowler, though, as the STL Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold reports.
  • A thin starting pitching market will probably be even more so with the likelihood of Johnny Cueto exercising his option to remain in San Francisco. Cueto will turn 32 in February and can lock in $21.83 million AAV over the next four seasons, a value he’s very unlikely to surpass given his age and mediocre performance this season.
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