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CHICAGO (AP) — The idea of Manny Machado joining Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in a powerhouse lineup sure is a tantalizing one.

Whether that happens or not, the Chicago Cubs are banking on the players they have to perform up to expectations. So far, that hasn’t happened. And if fans are frustrated, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein understands.

“I think we should have high expectations,” he said Friday. “I think this group has earned a tremendous amount of trust. It’s OK to be really frustrated with our inability to really get locked in and get hot and play up to our talent and our expectations, while at the same time being really optimistic that this group really figures it out.”

Epstein insisted his team has not engaged in trade talks, despite speculation about a potential deal with Baltimore for Machado.

He wouldn’t comment on reports that the Cubs could be a landing spot for the slick-fielding slugger. He said there are “zero trade talks” at the moment and Chicago has enough to win the World Series for the second time in three years.

“The simple way to put it is there have been a lot of trade rumors about the Cubs, and there’s essentially zero trade talks,” Epstein said. “It’s my job to clarify there’s nothing going on right now.”

The Manny Watch intensified in Chicago this week when the Orioles visited the White Sox. The three-time All-Star has an expiring contract and could be dealt this season, with Baltimore owning one of the worst records in baseball.

The Cubs have struggled to hit their stride with at 25-21 entering Friday’s game against the San Francisco Giants. They have been inconsistent at the plate and on the mound. And it’s added up to another frustrating start for a team that got out slowly in 2015 and 2017.

Chicago was second in the National League in runs scored heading into Friday’s game but was batting just .222 with runners in scoring position — 26th in the majors. The Cubs had the NL’s highest slugging percentage with the bases empty — and the majors’ lowest with men in scoring position.

“It’s just odd,” Epstein said. “We’re not getting the bang for our buck with the offensive production. A lot of our extra-base hits and home runs are with nobody on base. We’re not performing at that same level as we have with runners in scoring position, so it should even out. We just have to always make sure it’s not something that’s baked into our approach or something. I don’t think it is.”

Maddon always tinkers with the lineup, moving players up and down in the order. He values versatility and he wants to keep a deep roster fresh.

While Kris Bryant is off to a solid start, Anthony Rizzo was batting just .207. Addison Russell hasn’t hit the way the Cubs hoped, either. And the starting rotation hasn’t clicked behind Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks.

Yu Darvish has a 4.95 ERA and didn’t pick up a win until he beat Cincinnati on Sunday. Jose Quintana (4.47 ERA) hasn’t been as effective as the Chicago would like, and Tyler Chatwood leads the majors with 40 walks, despite a respectable 3.74 ERA.

“They’re all very close,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It really comes down to command issues with most of those guys, where we’re off. Physically, stuff-wise, we’re fine.”

He said hasn’t thought about taking Chatwood out of the rotation at some point if his control issues continue. Instead, Maddon predicted Chatwood is “really gonna take off” and will be “looking really good” by the end of the season.

Chicago’s prized free agent addition, Darvish at least looks like he is starting to come around. He held Cincinnati to a run in six innings for his first win since signing a $126 million, six-year contract. He went four strong innings in his previous start at Atlanta before exiting because of cramping.

“It’s a process,” Epstein said. “He hasn’t gotten to a point where he’s at the top of his game and feeling great and feeling comfortable in everything. But I think he’s on the road to getting there. Even if he goes out and has a bad one, it doesn’t mean he’s starting over.”


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