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ST. LOUIS — After a long past few days and weeks of calls with other teams’ front offices leading into Tuesday’s trade deadline, Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins finally feels like he can exhale a little bit.
“It’s been a wild month, for sure, for everybody in the league, just what was going on,” Hawkins said.
After about a four-hour delay Wednesday night getting into St. Louis due to thunderstorms and with the Cubs playing a doubleheader Thursday right before heading back to Chicago for a day game Friday, things didn’t get all that much less hectic for the first-year Cubs GM. But with the deadline having come and gone and with baseball shifting gears into the last two months of the season, Hawkins met with media at Busch Stadium to discuss some of the moves his team did and didn’t make.
As the Cubs get set to host a three-game weekend series with the Marlins, here are four takeaways from that conversation with the Cubs’ rookie GM.
1. ‘Unbelievable’ amount of interest for Effross
The Cubs made four moves leading up to Tuesday, and three of them were expected to come from the outset.
The team’s three veteran bullpen arms were traded elsewhere over the last few days before the deadline, with David Robertson, Mychal Givens and Chris Martin going to the Phillies, the Mets and the Dodgers, respectively, for prospects. Because those three were on cheap, short-term deals, they were always seen as potential trade chips and had cropped up in various rumors around Major League Baseball.
But there was one trade almost nobody saw coming: rising reliever Scott Effross was traded to the Yankees.
Effross wasn’t necessarily seen as a trade chip, if only because he still has five more years of club control. So in that sense, it isn’t like the Cubs had to shop him around to try and get some value out of his contract year or anything like that.
The market for Effross is also a testament to his own development as a pitcher. He transitioned into a sidearmer before the 2019 season, which gave him what he recently called “a second life” in the Cubs system. After debuting and appearing in 14 games in 2021, Effross had a breakout 2022 in which he posted a 2.66 ERA and 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine with the the Cubs. He also appeared in 47 games with the North Siders this season (which at one point was tied for the second-most games pitched in the majors), and he also accomplished the feat of pitching in all nine innings (plus extras) in 2022. And in his last appearance with the Cubs, Effross earned his first career save.
“There was an unbelievable amount of interest in Scott throughout the league, just because of what he’s done and how he’s been able to do it,” Hawkins said. “Obviously, that wasn’t in the media as much, but we were getting a lot of calls on him, enough so that we had to really test the market. We felt like the return we got from the Yankees was such that it made sense for us to make that move.”
2. ‘Encouraged’ by Cubs pitching development
Effross is one of the Cubs’ biggest pitching development success stories, but there are others that the infrastructure has produced that point to the end of the narrative that the Cubs can’t develop pitching.
Just in Hawkins’ time on the North Side alone, pitchers like Brandon Hughes and now Erich Uelmen have turned minor league success into big-league opportunities. But don’t mistake Hawkins for someone who’s going to take credit for the current turnaround in pitching development throughout the system.
“I think the misconception is that someone can come in and immediately change culture or immediately can change infrastructure or immediately can change processes to where there’s instant results,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen in life, and it doesn’t happen in baseball.”
Along with Effross, younger arms like Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele worked through the system and have now found their places in the big leagues. That type of development didn’t happen during the last competitive window, but Craig Breslow (who was hired in January 2019 before receiving promotions to director of pitching in October ’19 and then to assistant GM/VP of pitching in November 2020), has helped head an overhaul of the infrastructure that is producing homegrown talent.
“That’s not because of anything we’ve done in the last nine months,” Hawkins said. “That’s because of things that have happened two, three years before, as Craig and the rest of that group started putting things together. I’m really encouraged by that.”
The job isn’t finished. With opportunities having opened up due to the trades and with plenty of intriguing arms waiting in the wings, there’ll be even more of a need to ensure the development continues at the minor league level. The constant influx of data will force the Cubs to keep changing, too. But for now, Hawkins sees an infrastructure that is pushing all the right buttons while the Cubs try to quickly turn things around at the major league level.
“Are we going to continue to evolve? Absolutely. We’re going to do that all the time,” Hawkins. “But overall, I’m really encouraged. I think we got a great structure in place, great resources in place, a lot of different people looking at things from a lot of different angles. Could not be more excited about the direction we’re heading there.”
3. Tough conversations might be on the way
Along with those young arms looking for opportunities, there are position players who the Cubs want to see perform at the big-league level as well. Nelson Velázquez is one who’s already made it to the North Side, but he so far hasn’t found that path toward everyday playing time.
That could change over the last two months of the season.
“I think there’s a constrained amount of lineup spots and games that we play, and if you give something to someone, you’re going to have to take it away from somebody else,” Hawkins said, when asked if tough conversations with players are coming. “We’ll make sure that our communication is as open and as transparent as possible.”
That began with David Bote being optioned to Triple-A Iowa in between games of the doubleheader on Thursday, which manager David Ross also attributed to making sure he’s getting everyday at-bats as well. But there are players like Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons, who are both on the injured list but who are also not seen as pieces for the next competitive era.
Upon their returns, they shouldn’t be taking away valuable time from players who are trying to prove themselves in the big leagues. There are others who could come up from the minors, and underperforming veterans shouldn’t be standing in their way, either.
The rest of the season should be spent evaluating what the Cubs have in these youngsters. They already know what they have in some of those veterans, and giving them a big chunk of the playing time left in the season isn’t going to change anything. So, it’s imperative that the ones in charge make those tough decisions that will only benefit the team in the long run.
“I think we’re always thinking about how we can make our club better, both for the current and for the future,” Hawkins said. “Part of that is getting opportunities for players over the course of the next couple of months. We got a whole second half of the season to play here.”
4. Can’t yet say the Cubs won’t sell in ’23
Fans want to know when the rebuild will be over. They see other big-market clubs competing year in and year out, and they wonder why the Cubs can’t do the same.
After two seasons of selling at the deadline, fans want to hear that the Cubs are done selling and will be in a position to buy come this time next year. Hawkins, though, isn’t ready to say that just yet.
He believes the Cubs are on the right track, and maybe if things go better moving forward than they did over the last year, there’s a path to being buyers somewhere in the near future. They weren’t in the Juan Soto sweepstakes because they didn’t feel they were in the right spot to make that move, and they’re hoping the prospects and young players they would’ve had to give up for Soto instead become pieces to a team that is competitive.
But the timeline is still murky at best, and betting on young players to become key contributors is still a gamble. The Cubs could certainly find themselves in the same position next year, but that’s a spot they’ll be working to avoid for the third season in a row.
“We’re envious of the buyers, and we want to be the buyers and do everything we can to be the buyers,” Hawkins said. “To say that we’ll never sell again would probably be disingenuous, but we’re doing everything we can to put ourselves in a place where we’ll be the buyers going forward.
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