What can Theo Epstein do to fix Cubs before trade deadline?

Cubs players and staff dressed up as characters from the Will Ferrell comedy "Anchorman" when they left Wrigley Field last week to begin their West Coast trip.

Unfortunately none of them chose "Baxter," the tiny dog owned by Ferrell's Ron Burgundy.

Baxter wound up being booted over a bridge by Jack Black's biker character, a fitting metaphor for the flailing Cubs, who have spent the last week being swept by both the Dodgers and Padres.

President Theo Epstein arrived Tuesday to lend moral support to his struggling team, and reiterated he doesn't plan to make any deals before the July trade period. Red Sox President Dave Dombrowski said the same thing Tuesday in Chicago, and the swap-o-ramas traditionally don't ramp up until the final week.

It's only May 31 after all.

Still, Epstein knows it's impossible to prevent media and fans from speculating on what he should do to get the Cubs back in black. And since this Cubs slump escalated quickly, the cries for help have been louder than usual.

The truth, as Dombrowski noted, is there are a limited number of teams willing to give up on the season and trade quality players, and almost everyone is still "in it."

Even the worst American League teams, the Royals and the A's, were only 5 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot on Wednesday. The only National League teams you can probably count out are the Marlins, Padres, Phillies and Braves, assuming the Giants are capable of a rebound from their woeful start.

So what can Epstein do in the next two months?

Nothing

This is the easiest scenario to envision, at least for now. The players got themselves into this mess, so perhaps they can get themselves out of it. The Cubs are, after all, the defending World Series champions, so maybe they deserve the benefit of the doubt. But May has been a terrible stretch for some of the young stars, with Kyle Schwarber's .139 average this month the second worst in baseball (75 or more plate appearances) and Addison Russell's .164 fifth worst.

How long can they continue to underperform before the Cubs are forced to respond with a big move? Quite a while, given their track record. Let's not forget former manager Dale Sveum threatened minor-league demotions early in 2013 for youngsters Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. It created a big stir, and Sveum was fired after the season.

Find a leadoff man

Assuming the starters will come around, the biggest concern may be the leadoff spot. Maddon took a long time to move off his Schwarber experiment, and the Cubs had no obvious Plan B candidate. (It may be small consolation, but Dexter Fowler's .310 OBP is even lower than Schwarber's .311). But if Epstein is looking to acquire a new leadoff guy in July, the pickings may be slim. Marlins leadoff man Dee Gordon is a proven commodity but was suspended last year for PED use and hasn't returned to form. Plus the Cubs already have three second basemen on the roster.

Toronto center fielder Kevin Pillar could be a good fit at the top spot and in the outfield, but the Blue Jays have recently begun to play well, making them an unlikely trade partner. Epstein also likes to factor in character, and Pillar was recently suspended two games for making a homophobic slur. So maybe Ben Zobrist can continue to fill the void, though his bat is missed in the middle.

Find another starter

Brett Anderson didn't work out before his latest in a series of injuries. It's early, but Eddie Butler doesn't seem to be working out either. And with the rest of the rotation inconsistent at best, it's putting more pressure on the bullpen. The Cubs likely would have to part with one or more of their best young players — Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Dylan Cease, Eloy Jimenez and Jeimer Candelario — in a package deal for a quality arm.

If money is no object and Epstein's former protege, Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen, is willing to deal, Zack Greinke should be high on Epstein's list. Hazen told the Arizona Republic he's unlikely to trade Greinke or A.J. Pollack if the D'backs are in contention, saying: "I can't envision that scenario taking place, unless there was some kind of adequate replacement, which I don't see how that would make sense for us or somebody else. But I understand the speculation."

It would be, as Burgundy says, "kind of a big deal." Speculation on Greinke stems from the fact he has 41/2 years left on his six-year, $206.5 million deal, an absurd contract for a franchise like the Diamondbacks, who ranked 21st in attendance last year and were at 24th on Wednesday. Greinke's a great pitcher but not exactly a drawing card, and that deal was made before Hazen arrived last winter.

The Cubs obviously could afford Greinke, and since Jake Arrieta is likely to leave after this season, they wouldn't have to go looking for his replacement. Of course the D'backs remain in contention, so Greinke remains a pipe dream until further notice.

Rays ace Chris Archer, a former Cubs prospect and a favorite of Maddon, would be a no-brainer if the Rays are willing to deal with the Cubs. That's another big "if," since the Rays accused the Cubs of tampering in the signing of Maddon. Like Hunter Strickland, owners hold on to grudges too.

Lefty Derek Holland is off to a nice start with the White Sox and is affordable and (so far) healthy. But the Sox are reluctant to deal with the Cubs for fear of helping them, so an invisible electric fence divides the trade route between the North and South Sides.

The A's perpetual trade bait, Sonny Gray, will be out there again, reminding everyone of his potential and history of arm issues. Buyer beware.

A more modest approach would be acquiring an older veteran like 34-year-old Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ, a Northwestern alumnus who is coming off the disabled list but went 82-68 from 2014-16. The Jays would have to be out to do it, but Happ wouldn't cost as much in return as others and would be less of a financial risk.

And as the old saying goes, two Happs are better than one.

Upgrade the bullpen

Wade Davis and Carl Edwards Jr. have carried the load so far, but the Cubs could use some back-end help, especially if the starters aren't going to throw 200 innings. Last year Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Mark Melancon were all available in July, and the Cubs wound up giving up a top prospect in Gleyber Torres for Chapman.

Now they need a middle reliever or two, and calling up Rob Zastryzny isn't going to be the answer.

Padres lefty Brad Hand will be available and perhaps would allow Mike Montgomery to move into the rotation and squelch the search for another starter. The White Sox's David Robertson is going to be shopped, but again, there's that invisible fence.

So what does history tell us Epstein will do with a contending Cubs team at the trade deadline?

In 2015 the Cubs took the low-risk route by acquiring Dan Haren from the Marlins for two obscure minor leaguers. It didn't work out, but no harm, no foul.

Last year Epstein made the Montgomery-Dan Vogelbach multiplayer deal on July 20 and the Chapman-Torres multiplayer deal five days later.

Bingo.

There's plenty of time for the Cubs to do something, and not much else to do until July 31 but suffer through this season in your glass case of emotion.

psullivan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

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