Cubs

Cubs: Javier Baez Watch is heating up

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Cubs: Javier Baez Watch is heating up

MIAMI – Javier Baez Watch is heating up.

The Cubs appear to be moving closer and closer to roster changes that could have far-reaching implications, shifting Baez to third base at Triple-A Iowa and planning for a possible promotion.

Of course, the Cubs already have a third baseman who just became the National League’s Rookie of the Month for May.

“I’m just here to help the team win,” Kris Bryant said Wednesday at Marlins Park. “And if that’s playing in the outfield, then that’s where I’ll be. If Javy’s swinging a great bat, then we could definitely use him. I’m willing to play anywhere to help the team win.”

Baez is trying to force the issue, hitting .391 with five homers and 16 RBI in his previous 12 games for Iowa. From afar, he seems to be getting over the disappointment in spring training and trying to move on from the death of his younger sister, which caused him to take an extended leave of absence in April.

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Manager Joe Maddon already wanted Baez on his Opening Night roster, even taking into account those extreme contact issues we saw last season with the Cubs (95 strikeouts in 52 games).

Baez is a natural shortstop who wanted to win the second-base job in camp. If Baez gets exposed to third base, it doesn’t look like the Cubs would be ready to break up their double-play combination of Starlin Castro and Addison Russell.

“The biggest thing with any young player like (Baez) is: How are they hitting?” Maddon said. “Do you think that their bat can handle the major-league level? And once you deem that ‘yes,’ then, of course, you try to fit in the defensive part of it.

“I hear he’s doing a lot better at the plate, a more controlled swing, a greater amount of contact, less chase, those kinds of things. And I’ve talked about him before: I think he’s a great athlete. I think he has really high baseball acumen. I saw that defensively positioning. I saw that running the bases. I saw him in (winter ball). He’s a good baseball player.

“So with everything we got going on out here, why not open his mind to something else? You never know how it’s going to benefit you, as a group, or him, individually. I thought it was a great idea.”

It doesn’t bother Bryant, who already felt comfortable in the outfield after playing out there for the University of San Diego. Even before the Cubs made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft, there were questions about whether or not his 6-foot-5 frame would ultimately push him off third base.

“They told me (Baez) was going to be moving all over the place,” Bryant said, “and not to worry about anything."

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Given his versatility, strong arm, defensive range and potentially explosive bat, it would make sense for the Cubs to give Baez a few more days with Iowa, allowing him to get acclimated at third base before next week’s interleague series against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park, where the designated hitter will be an X-factor.

“All those guys are in play,” Maddon said. “We’ve had like preliminary discussions. We haven’t decided on anything. Everything’s pretty much on the table. The fact that we have so many young, interesting players is good for conjecture.”

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

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USA TODAY

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: