MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

South Side shows Cubs what they're missing

Chicago's North Side team could help close gap with arm like Sale's

South Side shows Cubs what they're missing

CHICAGO -- On the South Side, Chris Sale took care of business.

And further north, at just about the same time that the White Sox were stepping up to back Sale, business took care of Jon Lester.

So it goes for the aces of Chicago's two Major League teams.

While the home-grown, 26-year-old Sale was beating Mark Buehrle and the Blue Jays, 4-2, in a game that lasted only one hour and 54 minutes and ended before thunderstorms reached U.S. Cellular Field, Lester, 31 and purchased for $155 million, lost a no-hitter in the seventh inning at Wrigley Field and stewed through a one-hour, 16-minute rain delay before the Cardinals finished burying the Cubs, 6-0.

Sale on his complete-game win

This marked the Cubs' eighth loss in 10 games against the Cardinals this season, and the fourth consecutive over the past 11 days. The teams are scheduled to meet three more times this week, including a day-night doubleheader Tuesday.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon says he looks forward to playing the Cardinals because "if you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best.'' But while the Cubs have made a huge leap since hiring Maddon -- they are currently positioned for the second Wild Card spot in the National League -- they aren't looking like an immediate threat to St. Louis' superiority.

How can they change that?

Well, it sure would help to have Sale. Or someone else like him to be their version of Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Shelby Miller, Jaime Garcia or the young Adam Wainwright.

No organization consistently produces pitching quite like the Cardinals. If you're going to beat them, you need to grow some studs of your own.

Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein acknowledges that the Cubs have an imbalance between the young hitters who make them so much fun to watch and the strong, young pitching that historically has been the hallmark of winning teams. He and his staff have done a great job identifying arms to acquire in trades -- in particular Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, Pedro Strop and Neil Ramirez -- but, unlike the Cardinals, they're an injury or two away from sliding back in the pack.

They've got a lot of great arms in their farm system, but most of them are on 19- and 20-year-olds who haven't gotten acclimated to full-season leagues. Until further notice, impact young arms will have to be imported.

That means young hitter-for-young-pitcher trades, like the Hanley Ramirez-for-Josh Beckett deal between the Red Sox and Marlins. If there's a deal to be made for a young gun this summer -- a guy like Sale, Sonny Gray, Corey Kluber, Chris Archer or Jacob deGrom -- the Cubs are as well positioned as any team to pull it off.

If Epstein can part with some of the big-name prospects he's accumulated, that is.

"Hello, Rick Hahn, it's Theo. I'll give you Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, Matt Szczur, Dan Vogelbach and your pick of two other players age 20-or-younger for Chris Sale. What do you say, Rick, can we make a deal?''

That's the kind of telephone call Epstein would have to make to get Sale or one of the other top young arms. You can argue he shouldn't do it because that's an awful lot of risk to take for one young arm, especially one on a body like Sale's, which looks misleadingly frail.

But imagine facing the Cardinals with a rotation of Sale (or Gray/Archer/Kluber/deGrom), Lester, Arrieta, Hammel and Hendricks. That would have to get their attention, wouldn't it?

Here are a few other ways to close the gap:

• Do a better job catching the ball. These Cardinals have been unusually mediocre in the field, but the Cubs are only a tick better (they rank 11th in Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency ratings, which have the Cards 14th). To close the gap, they've probably got to stop biding time and make the difficult call on Starlin Castro.

Epstein can make the tough call. He showed that when he was still getting the other GMs on his cell phone directory, trading Nomar Garciaparra to Jim Hendry's Cubs at the Deadline in 2004. He did that because Garciaparra had become sub-par defensively.

Don't be surprised if the Cubs trade for Ben Zobrist or another second baseman and announce that Addison Russell is moving to short, with Castro either traded or becoming an instant utility man.

• Keep adding bullpen arms. You can't have enough depth out there, especially if Maddon is your manager. Rafael Soriano has finally arrived state-side and is on his way to Wrigley Field at some point after the All-Star break. Carl Edwards Jr. (previously known as C.J. Edwards) is getting closer. But don't overlook the possibility of adding an impact piece at the Deadline, like the Giants quietly did when they traded for a 32-year-old Javier Lopez in 2010.

• Fix Lester's tic throwing to the bases. No, it isn't the reason Lester hasn't won since May 16, but it's always there. You could see the Cardinals working to take advantage of his discomfort holding on runners with the ridiculously long leads they were taking on Monday.

Lester isn't having the kind of season he wanted to give Tom Ricketts, Epstein and the Cub fans. But the story of his season will be written after the All-Star break. There's got to be a way to help him make a simple throw to first base. If he's not confident doing that, you wonder how confident he can be with the rest of his game. And if he's not confident, it's going to be hard to keep cutting down his ERA, which dropped to 3.48 after he allowed two unearned runs to the Cardinals.

• Get Schwarber ready to play outfield if Soler doesn't start pounding the ball. The Cubs talked about playing Schwarber in left field at Iowa, but thus far, he's either caught or served as a DH. His left-handed bat could give Maddon an option if Soler doesn't start hitting like he did in 2014. His OPS is more than 100 points higher against lefties than right-handers, and if that platoon differential continues, the Cubs could consider using Schwarber in left field a couple times a week, with Chris Coghlan moving to right.

But getting Soler right is a much better option.

• Stay patient. The Cubs' baby pitchers aren't going to grow up overnight. Until they start arriving in waves, like the young hitters have since the second half of last season, Epstein is going to have to pay heavily to get them, either on the free-agent market or in trades. Luckily for the Cubs, he has the resources to do either.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.