CHICAGO — No one wearing a Chicago Cubs uniform can say it, but perhaps an executive might bite: Was the deal for pitcher Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila made late on Sunday done with October in mind as much as August and September?
The Cubs, after all, have a 2 1/2 game lead in the National League Central entering August, a month in which they’ve gone 41-15 under manager Joe Maddon the past two seasons. A case can be made that it’s already their division to lose.
“[This] second half we played really well, but we have three teams we have to hold off to win the division. That’s our focus,” general manager Jed Hoyer said during a conference call Monday afternoon. “A team that was two games under .500 two weeks ago [at the All-Star break] can’t be looking ahead. We have to take care of business in our division.”
So, no. Hoyer won’t go there. But that doesn’t mean Maddon won’t use his now-even-deeper roster throughout the second half to prep for another extra month of baseball. The Cubs still need to pull away from Milwaukee and the rest, but the additions of Wilson and Avila allow them to spread out the workload, especially in the bullpen. The Cubs needed one more arm who could keep a lead if they wanted to win a lot more over the remainder of the schedule, and Wilson can do that.
“It certainly felt adding a high-leveraged left-hander, which is something that we haven’t had this year, it really helped us,” Hoyer said. “And I think it takes a little bit of a burden off a bunch of different guys, which I think is really helpful for Joe.”
Wilson will come in handy come October. As of right now, the Cubs and Washington Nationals are on a first-round collision course. The two teams will also meet this weekend at Wrigley Field, and it’s safe to assume that the Cubs’ new lefty will face dangerous left-handed hitters Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy at some point in the three-game series. Harper is 0-for-2 with a walk in his career against Wilson, and Murphy is 0-for-5 with a walk and three strikeouts.
“We added three pieces to the team that can help us win this division and hopefully beyond that,” Hoyer said.
Winning while staying fresh is the Cubs’ key to another long postseason run. No one handles that better than Maddon, and his bosses have helped him achieve both of those goals. Consider this: The Cubs had enough talent to win their division before Sunday night’s deal, and now they might have enough to win a few playoff rounds. They’ll undoubtedly be the underdogs if they do get that far, but the goal is to not rely on just one arm, as they did most of the previous postseason. The 1-2 punch of Wilson and Wade Davis can be as good as any in the NL come October.
“Davis will close, but Wilson will be right there,” Maddon said from his charity golf outing on Monday. “When you get another guy like Justin, what it permits you to do is rotate the stock a little bit and not burn anyone out.”
The Cubs were fortunate that neither the Brewers nor any other division opponent ran away from them in the first half, and now they have a chance to earn a postseason spot without pushing hard all the way until the end. The latter case could have cooked them, but with three reinforcements added in July, they can accomplish both goals: win and stay fresh.
Will it be enough to repeat? With the Los Angeles Dodgers looking like a powerhouse after their deadline deals, which included acquiring starter Yu Darvish from the Rangers, the Cubs will be the underdogs.
Perhaps that will suit them well this year, after they were the overwhelming favorites last season. Now it’s the Dodgers turn to “embrace the target.” Both teams did their part in July, and now the Cubs need to do theirs over the next 58 games to give themselves a chance for playoff glory again. A flurry of activity at the trade deadline has set the NL pennant race up for a great finish.
“I’m sure that flurry will have some impact on some pennant races and maybe some playoff games,” Hoyer said.
It’s bound to have an impact on the Cubs, as it’s hard to imagine the front office doing more for the team than it did in July.