Breaking down the Cubs' shortstop depth chart in September

Breaking down the Cubs' shortstop depth chart in September

The best case scenario for Addison Russell is he'll return with about two weeks left in the regular season.

But since he just suffered a setback in his pesky foot injury, nothing is guaranteed.

Thursday was the last day the Cubs could complete any sort of trade for another shortstop outside the organization, meaning unless somebody of value is suddenly released or granted free agency, the shortstop depth chart on the North Side of Chicago isn't changing anytime soon:

1. Javy Baez
2. Ben Zobrist
3. Mike Freeman

When — or maybe more aptly IF — Addison Russell comes back, he would move to the front of that line with Baez back to a super utility role and playing a lot of second base. 

"Hopefully you don't have to go beyond that," Joe Maddon said. "The thing about depth, you're looking to play Javy as often as possible, either getting him off his feet in a good or bad game or just giving him a day off and picking the right spot with that.

"Moving forward, I'll keep an eye on all that different stuff. I got nothing but glowing reports about Freeman as an infielder. Great kid. Really grounded, solid, not intimidated, overwhelmed or anything. I don't get that from him. I think he can help us a lot. Our minor-league people and Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] speak very highly of him."

Freeman was recently called up from Triple-A Iowa when rosters expanded Friday. The 30-year-old journeyman infielder stepped foot in his sixth clubhouse of 2017 this weekend after stints with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners and the Triple-A clubs for both teams prior to joining the Cubs on Aug. 6. He was granted free agency by the Dodgers on Aug. 5 and gambled on his market before taking a job with the defending world champs.

"This has been an interesting year, to say the least," Freeman said. "But wherever there's opportunity, I'm happy to go. Whatever role I could fill and however I can help the team win, I'm looking forward to doing it."

Freeman has played in 41 big-league games in his career, hitting only .123 with a .399 OPS in 63 plate appearances. His minor-league line looks a lot more promising — .292/.364/.383 over eight seasons.

The left-handed-hitting Freeman has played every position but catcher in his professional career.

The Cubs found out about Russell's three-week setback on the final day of August, allowing them a few hours to go out and try to acquire another shortstop ahead of the waiver deadline. The problem is, that market was shockingly poor.

"We looked; the list of guys that cleared waivers at that position was really small," Hoyer said. "But there was a lot of blocking this year. There was an active waiver wire — tons of guys got claimed by a lot of teams.

"We looked around and we signed Freeman for a reason. He was the best option. We did look, but there wasn't anything that was more appealing."

Zobrist has played 234 games at shortstop in his career, but he's seen just 11 innings at the position since 2014 and is now a 36-year-old who has struggled with knicks and pains all season after back-to-back World Series runs. Freeman represents the ultimate insurance in case anything happens to Baez and Zobrist can't keep up with the most demanding position besides pitcher and catcher.

But for now, Baez is flourishing as the everyday guy, employing his #ElMago routine on a seemingly daily basis.

"You've gotta make sure you're prepared for anything, but at the same time, these are important games," Hoyer said. "Javy's been playing great; he really answered the challenge of playing every day. He's playing with great energy and great confidence.

"He's gonna be out there and hopefully he keeps it going. I'm really proud of the way he's responded to this challenge and I think he's playing with consistency. We're seeing aspects of his game that we haven't seen in the past."

Which is good news for the Cubs, given the clock is ticking and they cannot count on Russell returning as a given.

"I'm optimistic about it, but I think counting on it...," Hoyer said, "listen, that injury is an injury that gets reaggravated as we've seen. We need to get him healthy. I do hope we get him back for sure.

"Our defense is notably better with both Javy and Addy in the lineup at the same time. I'm hopeful, I'm optimistic. But we gotta get this guy healthy and hopefully not have a setback next time."

The 3 biggest Cubs questions as MLB Winter Meetings kick off


The 3 biggest Cubs questions as MLB Winter Meetings kick off

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — As the baseball world descended upon Disney World, the Cubs are sitting pretty.

Theo Epstein's front office is poised to make "The Happiest Place on Earth" a reality as they already appear to have some of their major offseason issues resolved.

The Cubs reportedly have an agreement in place with late-inning reliever Brandon Morrow, a move that should be announced Monday once a physical is passed, the "I" are dotted and the "T"s are crossed. 

Couple that with last Thursday's signing of starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood and the Cubs' search for pitching has gone well even if they missed out on 23-year-old Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani.

However, while the Cubs are in an enviable position of filling most of the pressing holes on their roster entering the MLB Winter Meetings, there are still questions to be answered.

Here are the top three questions facing Theo and Co. in Florida this week:

1. Who will fill the final rotation spot?

The Cubs are said to be pushing hard for Alex Cobb to fill out their starting staff, but as of the official tipoff of the Winter Meetings, no deal had been reached.

Cobb and the Cubs have been linked since before the right-hander even reached free agency. There was a clear need for another starter on Chicago's North Side heading into the winter and Cobb had the connection with Joe Maddon from their days together in Tampa Bay.

Cobb's connection to the Cubs was strengthened when Maddon hired former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey to serve in the same role in Chicago.

If the Cubs are able to secure Cobb's services, they will have their starting rotation set for 2018:

Jon Lester
Kyle Hendricks
Jose Quintana
Alex Cobb
Tyler Chatwood

Depending on the length of the deal for Cobb, the Cubs could have some rotation consistency for the next several seasons as all four current starters (Lester, Hendricks, Quintana, Chatwood) are signed through the 2020 season.

However, if the Cubs and Cobb can't come to an agreement — they are hardly the only team bidding on the 30-year-old's services — who will be the fifth and final starter? The free agent market is rather slim after Cobb, Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, though the trade market is clearly an option with the Cubs currently possessing a surplus of young position players.

2. Will the Cubs pull off any major trades?

There's no doubt the Cubs will be linked to plenty of trade rumors throughout the week at Disney World, but will anything actually come to fruition?

Kyle Schwarber has been linked to a pair of American League East teams — the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox — over the last few days, but it'd be tough to see the Cubs sell low on a guy they absolutely love.

Forget the fact that he's lost a bunch of weight and in the best shape of his life (which does matter if he's to improve his range in the outfield), here's how Epstein explained why the Cubs feel such a personal attachment to America's Now-Not-So-Large Adult Son:

"I will say that it's really an organization-wide evaluation of this player," Epstein said the day after the Los Angeles Dodgers eliminated the Cubs from the NLCS in October. "But I'm not skirting responsbility. I'll happily endorse him. He's the type of the player that we want to win here with the Cubs and have won with. 

"The fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start. But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming a little bit more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. That's important for him to get his identity back as a hitter, as a dangerous hitter that honestly, we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of Anthony Rizzo, per se. 

"When he reaches his prime, I think we feel like that's what he could be. He's got certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find that we don't necessarily have in surplus in abundance running around in this clubhouse and organization. Certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together. That's important. We rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he's the type of offensive player that you build around along with a couple other guys like him."

You'll be hard-pressed to find a better public endorsement of any player from Epstein.

But even if Schwarber isn't dealt, the Cubs can still trade any number of guys from a pool that includes Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Javy Baez or Addison Russell.

3. Will Morrow have any other new bullpen mates?

Assuming Morrow's deal doesn't hit any snags, will the Cubs add any other relief reinforcements this week?

It's a pretty good bet to take. Never in the history of baseball have relievers had such an impact on important games — particularly in October — and the Cubs clearly understand that as well as anybody.

After Maddon's mix-and-match approach with the bullpen the last two postseasons, the Cubs clearly cannot go into 2018 with World Series expectations when they boast essentially the same relief corps, with Morrow replacing Wade Davis.

Speaking of Davis, the presence of Morrow doesn't necessarily mean the 2017 Cubs closer with "huge balls" won't be returning. Morrow's reported $10+ million per year makes a Davis return less likely, but the Cubs certainly need another impact reliever and Morrow can slot in as a seventh/eighth inning setup guy.

Here's how the Cubs bullpen depth chart looks right now (with Morrow inserted):

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Mike Montgomery
Justin Wilson
Justin Grimm
Dario Alvarez

Plenty of high-leverage relief options remain available on the open market, including Brandon Kintzler (whom the Cubs were linked to this week), Addison Reed, Anthony Swarzak, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw.

Report: Cubs agree to deal with reliever Brandon Morrow

Report: Cubs agree to deal with reliever Brandon Morrow

The Cubs are making moves before the Winter Meetings even begin.

According to John Heyman the team has agreed to a deal with relief pitcher Brandon Morrow.

Morrow, 33, had a breakout campaign for the Dodgers in 2017, posting a 2.06 ERA in 43.2 innings for the Dodgers as the main set-up man to Kenley Jansen. He was solid in the postseason, logging a 3.95 ERA in 13,2 innings for the World Series-bound Dodgers.

Watch Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki discuss the reported deal.

Live from the Winter Meetings, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki are breaking down the Cubs' expected signing of reliever Brandon Morrow

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Sunday, December 10, 2017