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Cubs need not panic — but what about a deal for Jose Quintana?

David Haugh
Chicago Tribune

We will know the time has come to worry about the Cubs when Theo Epstein tells us.

That likely will arrive later rather than sooner, or maybe not at all if the World Series champions finally pick up the pace in what, so far, has been a victory lap of a season. Whenever the time for real concern comes — it's approaching fast — another team's general manager presumably will get the message first, in a phone call Epstein should make soon to improve a team that will struggle to repeat without addressing its spotty starting pitching and defense.

Imagine, for instance, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn hearing from Epstein. For the good of the Sox, Hahn even might want to initiate the conversation to discuss the Chicago teams' compatibility.

The Cubs have the caliber of prospects Hahn covets as he rebuilds the organization. The Sox have Jose Quintana, a top-of-the-rotation starter with a team-friendly contract who could command a high price of minor-leaguers the Cubs can pay.

It is as easy to see Cubs 2015 first-round draft pick Ian Happ — Ben Zobrist 2.0 — becoming a fixture in a Sox uniform for years as it is to envision Quintana stabilizing a Cubs staff off to a shaky start. It is as if the city's trade partners were brought together by, with the only potential hang-up geography, hardly a good enough reason to avoid a connection that could create happiness on both sides of town.

Hahn spent the offseason rebuffing the Astros, among other teams, and waiting for the perfect package for Quintana. He probably takes forever shopping for suits. But the longer Hahn waits, the more he risks Quintana diminishing his trade value any more than his 2-5 record and 4.46 ERA have. Timing is everything.

Meanwhile, the Cubs must face reality reinforced over the weekend that their rotation lacks the consistency it showed in 2016 and needs the kind of help Quintana's steadiness can provide. Next up in the No. 5 spot will be either 25-year-old Eddie Butler or rubber-armed reliever Mike Montgomery in place of failed offseason experiment Brett Anderson, a colorful guy more memorable on social media than he was on the mound. Maybe Butler emerges as the answer. Maybe Montgomery thrives in a starting role, which would create a void in the bullpen. Or maybe the Cubs can just pretend all is well and spend the summer reminiscing about Game 7.

As cool as it was for "60 Minutes" to do a segment Sunday revisiting the 2016 World Series, nobody wants "Dateline NBC" to show up in September digging into who killed the Cubs' mojo. Epstein always has been one step ahead of his peers, so surely he recognizes the warning signs not everybody wants to acknowledge in the midst of a party that never ends.

A few things have become clear about the identity of the 2017 Cubs. Closer Wade Davis has been the best player in a reliable bullpen and right fielder Jason Heyward the most improved, a testament to the tenacity he took into the offseason. Kris Bryant, after starting slow, could make a serious run at a second straight Most Valuable Player award. Leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber, after starting fast, could respond well to moving down in the order, where the run producer more naturally fits. The Cubs don't play defense well enough to justify manager Joe Maddon putting the slogan "D-Peat" on a T-shirt, or even a pair of socks. And Cubs starting pitchers have had as hard of a time establishing a rhythm as David Ross on "Dancing With the Stars."

The Cubs might win the National League Central again with this rotation, but the new normal at Wrigley Field demands more. Hanging the World Series banner raised expectations that a 16-15 start has yet to meet.

In their first 31 games, the Cubs gave up 39 earned runs in the first inning. A late-arriving crowd is understandable in Chicago, considering traffic, but starting pitchers not getting settled in until the second is unacceptable for a World Series contender. One of Maddon's mantras for 2017 was for players to be uncomfortable, but Cubs starters have taken that to an extreme. Too often the Cubs have trailed before fans have finished their first bison dog.

An optimist will look at the Cubs' 10 comeback victories as a sign of resilience. A realist will wonder why a team this talented keeps falling behind so often.

Jon Lester remains the unquestioned ace. But Jake Arrieta has given up 12 earned runs in his last 16 innings, Kyle Hendricks has come back to earth, John Lackey functions like that old Chevy you can't be sure will last another winter and Anderson makes Cubs fans nostalgic about the Jason Hammel era. As a result, after a taxing series with the Phillies and a weekend sweep by the Yankees, the bullpen had thrown 311/3 innings in the last four games heading into the pinball machine known as Coors Field.

The calendar says the Cubs can afford not to overreact. Common sense says they shouldn't overlook the help that could be just 8.1 miles south.

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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