Cubs

Cubs reinforce bullpen with Tommy Hunter, trading Junior Lake to Orioles

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Cubs reinforce bullpen with Tommy Hunter, trading Junior Lake to Orioles

MILWAUKEE — The Cubs finished their dealing at the deadline on Friday by trading outfielder Junior Lake to the Baltimore Orioles for reliever Tommy Hunter.

Hunter should give manager Joe Maddon another option for high-leverage situations, strengthening a Cubs bullpen that’s been dominating, overworked and unpredictable.

Hunter emerged as a key piece for Buck Showalter’s bullpen in Baltimore, putting up a 2.97 ERA in 60 appearances and saving 11 games for a 96-win team last season. The year before, Hunter accounted for 86-plus innings, finishing with a 2.81 ERA and a 0.985 WHIP.

As president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said, the Cubs like to take pitchers from the American League and see how their talents translate in the National League. Like Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, who played with Hunter in Baltimore and have thrived since that change-of-scenery trade two years ago.

[MORE: Cubs bolster rotation, trade for Dan Haren at deadline]   

Arrieta and Strop stood in front of their lockers before a game against the Milwaukee Brewers. While Arrieta chatted with reporters and raved about Hunter’s power curveball and strong cutter, Strop chimed in with: “He’s crazy, too.”

“He talks a lot,” Arrieta said. “He’s got a good personality. He’s like a big teddy bear.”

At which point another player in the visiting clubhouse said Hunter’s like a big teddy bear that wants to kick you in the face.

Hunter is 29 years old, right-handed and set to become a free agent after this season. He’s owed almost $1.7 million for the stretch run and will apparently give this team an edge.

The Texas Rangers initially drafted Hunter out of the University of Alabama with the No. 54 pick in 2007. He spent some time in the Texas rotation before getting packaged with slugger Chris Davis in the Koji Uehara trade on July 30, 2011.

At the age of 25, Lake needed the chance to play somewhere else and will go to Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate. To add Hunter, the Cubs also designated reliever Ben Rowen for assignment.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Lake had been a bigger prospect than Starlin Castro coming out of the Dominican Republic. The two had been roommates on the same path — until Castro made the leap and blossomed into an All-Star shortstop.

Lake gave the Cubs a spark in 2013, hitting six homers with 16 doubles in 64 games. But he couldn’t nail down a big-league job last season, striking out 110 times in 308 at-bats. He’s still an interesting combination of power (.826 career OPS on the Triple-A level) and speed (128 stolen bases in the minors) for Baltimore. 

But the Cubs have already identified their core hitters for the future and need someone like Hunter to get big outs right now.

“He’s really going to help us,” Arrieta said. “He’s very attentive of the finer details, who’s coming up, who they have coming off the bench, what this guy likes to hit. He’s going to be a presence in the clubhouse and in our ‘pen.”

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: