Cubs

Cubs: Addison Russell ready to handle the grind of a long season

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Cubs: Addison Russell ready to handle the grind of a long season

NEW YORK — The Cubs are bracing for Addison Russell to hit the rookie wall.

This will be a major second-half issue for a young team leaning on several key players who haven’t run the 162-game marathon before — much less experienced meaningful baseball through late September and deep into October.

“I just hear from people that it’s a grind,” Russell said. “This is actually my first year where I feel really, really good and I’m playing every single day. And it’s at the big-league level.

“It’s a lot to handle, but I’m just going to stick with my workout program, and stick to my routine, and hopefully that will be enough to get me through the season."

[MORE CUBS: After building around hitters, Cubs don’t have magic to fix offense]

With that in mind, Joe Maddon didn’t put Russell in Wednesday’s lineup against the New York Mets at Citi Field. The manager plans to give Russell and Kris Bryant scheduled days off, even with the Cubs struggling to generate offense, scoring eight runs in their previous seven games.

“These guys that have never done it before — it will just smack you in the face,” Maddon said. “So now is the time to really be proactive regarding how you work with these guys. I’m all for it.

“Because, again, we’re planning on playing several more months — one extra month.”

The Cubs will need their young players to produce if they’re going to stay in the wild-card race and force their way into the playoffs. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant is the first rookie in franchise history with at least 10 homers, 40 runs scored and 40 RBIs by the end of June.

[SHOP CUBS: Get an Addison Russell jersey right here]

Russell — a 21-year-old second baseman who came up through the minors as a shortstop — is basically learning a new position in The Show after playing only 14 career games at the Triple-A level.

The Oakland A’s included Russell in last year’s blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade once he proved he had recovered from a torn hamstring in early April. Since Oakland drafted him No. 11 overall in 2012, Russell has played only 55, 110 and 68 games across the last three seasons.

By July 1, Russell’s OPS had dipped to .682, only one of his five homers came in June, and he’s 1-for-13 so far on this road trip through St. Louis and New York.

But the Cubs also believe Russell — a low-key, steady presence in the clubhouse and around the media — is wired to handle the ups and downs.

“I think (minor-league teammate Anthony) Giansanti said you couldn’t tell if I had two home runs in one game or struck out four times in one game,” Russell said. “That’s just kind of the ball that I play. In those crucial, exciting moments, I may show some emotion. But for the most part, I’m pretty much even keel.”

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.”