Cubs

Cubs monitoring Addison Russell's hamstring issues

addison-russell-cubs-3-07-16.png

Cubs monitoring Addison Russell's hamstring issues

MESA, Ariz. - Will Addison Russell be able to shake his hamstring issues?

The 22-year-old shortstop has been plagued by hamstring injuries in his brief career, including a right hamstring tear in 2014 and then another injury that kept him out of the National League Championship Series last fall.

Russell hurt his left hamstring in Game 3 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals and his absence in the NLCS was one of the more underrated aspects working against the Cubs as they were swept in four games by the New York Mets.

Russell admitted it was difficult to have to sit on the sidelines and watch.

"You're grinding with these guys every single day and then you're presented a rare opportunity being able to hopefully go to the World Series. And then it ends up being cut short by an injury," Russell said.

"This year, definitely taking more precaution to make sure my body's ready for a long season."

[RELATED - No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs]

Russell showed up to camp in great shape, drawing rave reviews from manager Joe Maddon for his conditioning.

Over the winter, Russell worked out at the Andrews Institute in Northwest Florida, specifically working on strengthening and training his legs and back muscles in an effort to avoid injuries.

"I'm pretty confident in my hamstring this year," Russell said. "I've been working out really, really hard and I'll hopefully be able to swipe more bags this year."

Maddon is thinking along those same lines, talking last week about Russell's physical shape and how the second-year shortstop is quicker laterally, which will help in the field and on the basepaths.

But are the Cubs really going to want to risk Russell's health stealing bases when he has a history of hamstring issues?

The Cubs traded away Starlin Castro in the offseason, so the Cubs don't have as many backup options now. In the case of another Russell injury, Javy Baez would probably have to move from his super-utility role or else that burden would fall on 33-year-old light-hitting Munenori Kawasaki (.599 career MLB OPS) or 34-year-old Ben Zobrist who hasn't played shortstop since 2014.

However, that's all hypothetical and obviously the Cubs are hoping it never gets to that point.

The Cubs are working with Russell to correct his running mechanics, similar to what they did with Jorge Soler - who also has been hampered by soft-tissue injuries.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

"We watch it closely," Maddon said. "You gotta monitor him. ... Watch for any little signs and give him some rest when it's necessary. It's communicative. You gotta talk to the guy, listen to your trainers. If there's any kind of inclination, just back it off and give him a day.

"People will say, 'Oh he's only 22, he doesn't need a rest.' I'm so over that discussion. It's not true. It's 162 games, there's very little rest, you're on planes all the time, you're playing at different hours. There's all kinds of different items that are involved.

"These guys, they need rest, too, if you want them to play well at the end of the season. It was unfortunate what happened at the end of last season [with Russell], but we'll do everything we possibly can to monitor it."

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.”