Cubs

Cubs: Can Jon Lester slow down Billy Hamilton?

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Cubs: Can Jon Lester slow down Billy Hamilton?

DENVER — Welcome to Chicago, Jon Lester.

It only took one game into a six-year, $155 million contract before the storyline became the new Cubs ace having “the yips.” This after a spring training that had the All-Star lefty working through a “dead arm.”

While Lester is probably right when he says that the issue has been blown out of proportion, it’s also not going away. Not with Billy Hamilton and the Cincinnati Reds coming into Wrigley Field. Whether or not Lester throws over to first base on Monday night will be a big question mark.

“It makes for great reading,” manager Joe Maddon said Sunday at Coors Field. “For what you guys and ladies do, it’s perfect. You get to write stuff, and people are going to read it.

“Listen, I grew up in barrooms, and I know what it’s like. You need some good stuff in a barroom to carry on a conversation.

“So chew on it. In the meantime, it’s up to us to rectify everything and make it better. (But) I’m onboard with all that stuff. I love it.”

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Think Hamilton would like a shot at running against Lester? Cincinnati’s leadoff guy has stolen seven bases through his first five games this season. He stole 56 bases last year (and got caught 23 times). He put up 395 stolen bases in the minors (155 in 2012).

“Game-planning-wise, what do you do? You keep the guy off base, obviously,” Maddon said. “And then if you can’t, you have to minimize damage after that.”

ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” crew magnified Lester’s issues during a 3-0 loss on Opening Night, when the St. Louis Cardinals went 3-for-4 in stealing bases against him (though that included a double steal).

Whatever this is, it didn’t stop Lester from winning two World Series rings at Fenway Park — and it didn’t stop the Boston Red Sox from offering him $135 million guaranteed.

We’ll see if Hamilton can get in Lester’s head.

“Don’t let one guy take you out of your whole gig,” Maddon said. “It’s one run possibly, potentially. But I think sometimes pitchers will get enamored with that. And then all of a sudden, they stop focusing. You got to maintain your focus on getting the hitter out while you’re attempting to slow down the running game.”

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: