With Addison Russell out for NLCS, Cubs will rely on Javier Baez


With Addison Russell out for NLCS, Cubs will rely on Javier Baez

The trade rumors started from the moment the Cubs acquired Addison Russell, a guessing game of what happens next with Javier Baez and Starlin Castro after last year’s Fourth of July blockbuster.

The New York Mets looked like a match on paper with their stable of young power pitchers. Now four wins away from the World Series, the Cubs will use that shortstop surplus to fill what might have been a huge hole in their middle infield.

Manager Joe Maddon definitively ruled Russell out of the National League Championship Series, a strained left hamstring making Baez and Castro the new double-play combination starting with Saturday’s Game 1 against the Mets at Citi Field.

“Addie right now will not participate in this next round,” Maddon said Thursday at Wrigley Field. “We’re not going to utilize him. We’ll continue to work on him.

“Hopefully, if everything plays properly, and we have another opportunity to play another round, he might be available at that time. But for sure not this one.”

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Maddon didn’t know who would take Russell’s roster spot or if the Cubs would prefer to add another arm to the pitching staff for a seven-game series. But the team has no plans to move Castro – a three-time All-Star shortstop – off second base and back to his old position.

“Baez is our other shortstop,” Maddon said. “We set it up that way.”

Russell leapfrogged Baez this year and stabilized the team’s up-the-middle defense in early August when he moved from second base to shortstop. But the Cubs still have the luxury of swapping one first-round talent out for another.

Russell had been coming off a strained right hamstring when the Cubs made him the centerpiece to the Jeff Samardzija trade with the Oakland A’s. Russell said this issue – which became too much when he hustled for a triple during Monday’s Game 3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals – didn’t feel nearly as serious as that injury.

“The big thing was to ameliorate his mind in a sense that he knows what’s happening next,” Maddon said. “He’s not going to necessarily push it right now. Let’s go on a more normal pace with the training staff, not test it to the point that you injure it again by trying to be too aggressive.

[MORE: NLCS Preview: Who has the advantage?]

“This permits us to (make) it more of a planned situation regarding his rehab. And then we’ll work it out from there. He’s such a mature kid, man. The conversation was easy. He understood everything. He got it. I think he was a little bit relieved in a sense that he did not have to push it right now.”

Maddon is a big fan of Russell, who put up 13 homers, 29 doubles and 54 RBI during his rookie season. But the manager has also raved about Baez and his ability to impact games with his speed, defense and instincts.

Baez waited for a September call-up after a difficult season from a personal and professional standpoint. But he helped end the division series, sending the Cardinals home for the winter with a huge swing in Game 4. 

“Addison has played enough here this year to know that he belongs here and he can do this,” Maddon said. “I want to believe that Javy’s arriving at that same point. To hit a three-run homer in a playoff game like that against one of the best pitchers in the National League should boost your confidence.

[ALSO: Soler showing why he thrives under playoff pressure]

“The big thing primarily is the consistency on defense. We have to catch the ball. I talked about that the whole time – pitching it and catching it is really important to us. And I know he can do that.

“But it’s a mental thing. It’s a confidence issue. And when you’re able to get a hit like that under those circumstances, I want to believe it does help.”  

The Cubs kept saying you can never have too many shortstops – while also exploring deals that would have involved Baez or Castro – and they will need both to win their first pennant since 1945. 

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”