Cubs see their belief in Addison Russell pay off against Cardinals


Cubs see their belief in Addison Russell pay off against Cardinals

Even if the Cubs wanted to send Addison Russell back to Triple-A Iowa, they probably don’t have a good alternative at second base.

“Not right now, I don’t think,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But honestly I’m more than fine with Addison. I think he’s done great.”

This is the challenge of winning now — while still developing for later — when the Cubs are 46-37 after Tuesday’s doubleheader sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Russell came through with the clutch hit in Game 2 and admitted after a 5-3 victory that the confidence boost “means the world right now, especially against a team like that.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs flip the script on Cardinals, sweep doubleheader]

This looked like the breaking point that usually happens to the Cubs against the Cardinals (54-30). Russell reached out in the seventh inning and knocked a ball up the first-base line that stayed fair for a game-tying RBI single.

“From my view, it looked like it went over the bag,” Russell said. “Off the bat, I thought it was foul, and then it had like a weird spin on it, and it just bounced over the bag.”

Frustrated Cardinals reliever Seth Maness got ejected. His replacement — Kevin Siegrist — fielded a routine grounder on the next play and threw the ball into left-center field, which helped the Cubs tack on two more runs.

The bottom line is the Cubs need Russell to produce.

Javier Baez can’t be the midseason answer at second base or shortstop when he’s sidelined with a fractured finger. Tommy La Stella hasn’t been the versatile infielder/valuable bench player the Cubs hoped for because a tricky oblique injury has limited him to only six at-bats all season.

[MORE CUBS: What we learned about the Cubs in the first half]

Gold Glove second baseman D.J. LeMahieu — a homegrown player the Theo Epstein administration overlooked and packaged in the Ian Stewart deal with the Colorado Rockies — just made his first National League All-Star team.

Gleyber Torres — the Venezuelan shortstop who showed up at No. 28 on Baseball America’s midseason prospect rankings — is only 18 years old and playing at Class-A South Bend.

So even if the Cubs somehow found a good deal for Starlin Castro and sold low on their All-Star shortstop, it’s not like this team is stocked with ready-made up-the-middle solutions.

“There’s a lot of talk about that, who’s going to move where,” Russell said. “I got dealt a pretty new hand with learning second base kind of on the fly. But I’ve grown to love the position. I’m confident at that position right now. And I’m just looking to get better."

[MORE CUBS: All-Star snub? Jake Arrieta proves his worth as Cubs beat Cardinals]

Maddon wants to protect his players and push Russell questions into a big-picture analysis of how pitching and defense now gets all the shiny new toys. Offense is being suffocated with information overload, hot zones, instant scouting reports and defensive shifts.

“We won’t quit on (our young players),” Maddon said. “We talk about Addison a lot. (It’s) not only a new position, but then to cope with major-league pitching at the same time the birth certificate says he just turned 21. Not easy. Really hard to do. And then where the pitching is at right now makes it even more difficult.”

Russell hasn’t homered since June 17 — and the Cleveland Indians designated the pitcher who gave it up (Shaun Marcum) for assignment the next day. Russell has one extra-base hit in his last 19 games, his average falling to .227.

“I think he’s on the verge,” Maddon said. “I really do. I see a lot freer swing. I see a looser swing. He’s (starting) to not chase as often. The physical swing is wonderful.

“I have no problems with his approach, his swing, the bat speed, all that stuff. There are some things we’re talking about to get him to do a little bit better, but it’s going to happen. This kid is going to be really good.”

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

No one doubts Russell’s natural talent, high ceiling or levelheaded demeanor. That’s why Epstein saw it as an offer he couldn’t refuse when Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane included his blue-chip prospect in last summer’s Jeff Samardzija deal. But we’ve all probably expected too much too soon from The Core.

“Sometimes we get a little spoiled when we get on a roll,” Epstein said. “I know I do. I start to evaluate us through the lens of what you want to see, instead of sometimes what you have. We have to recognize that we are young. It’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality.

“It’s kind of a delicate balancing act. You don’t want to use youth or inexperience as an excuse. (But) we have to constantly remember that a lot of these guys are 23 or 22 or 21. Even the veterans are 25. Not the most experienced (group) in the world.

“They’re gonna put themselves in slumps really quickly, and maybe have a longer time coming out of them, because this is the first time they’ve been through a lot of this stuff. The length of the season — in and of itself — is the first time they’ve been through something like that.

“It’s a testament to how mature they are — and how talented they are — that sometimes (we) can forget that.”

At a time when offense is down and the Cubs keep playing 1-0, 2-1 games, Maddon also mentioned how Russell grades out well with WAR (1.1), a metric that leans heavily on defense, figuring that a run prevented is as good as a run driven in.

Not the Cubs think it will be an either-or situation with Russell.

“The thing I loved is how he battled through that moment,” Maddon said. “He’s been struggling a lot. And he did not cave. He did not quit. And hopefully that’s going to really help buoy his spirits.”

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”'s Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

USA TODAY's Cubs' 2018 Top Prospects list full of potential impact pitchers

Could 2018 be the year that the Cubs finally see a top pitching prospect debut with the team? 

Thursday, released its list of the Cubs' 2018 Top 30 Prospects, a group that includes six pitchers in the Top 10. The list ranks right-hander Adbert Alzolay as the Cubs' No 1. prospect, projecting him to debut with the team this season. 

Alzolay, 22, went 7-4 with a 2.99 ERA in 22 starts between Single-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee last season. He also struck out 108 batters in 114 1/3 innings, using a repertoire that includes a fastball that tops out around 98 MPH (according to

Following Alzolay as the Cubs' No. 2 overall prospect is 19-year-old shortstop Aramis Ademan. Ademan hit .267 in just 68 games between Single-A Eugene and Single-A South Bend, though it should be noted that he has soared from No. 11 in's 2017 ranks to his current No. 2 ranking. He is not projected to make his MLB debut until 2020, however.

Following Alzolay and Ademan on the list are five consecutive pitchers ranked 3-7, respectively. Oscar De La Cruz, No. 3 on the list, slides down from his 2017 ranking in which listed him as the Cubs' top overall prospect. De La Cruz, 22, finished 2017 with a 3.34 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) between the Arizona League and Single-A Myrtle Beach.

De La Cruz is projected to make his MLB debut in 2019, while Jose Albertos (No. 4), Alex Lange (No. 5), Brendon Little (No. 6) and Thomas Hatch (No. 7) are projected to make their big league debuts in 2019 or 2020. All are right-handed (with the exception of Little) and starting pitchers.

Hatch (third round, 2016) and Lange (30th overall, 2017) and Little (27th overall, 2017) were all top draft picks by the Cubs in recent seasons.

Having numerous starting pitchers on the cusp of the big leagues represents a significant change of pace for the Cubs. 

Since Theo Epstein took over as team president in Oct. 2011, a plethora of top prospects have debuted and enjoyed success with the Cubs. Majority have been position players, though.

The likes of Albert Almora, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all contributed to the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. Similarly, Ian Happ enjoyed a fair amount of success after making his MLB debut last season, hitting 24 home runs in just 115 games.

Ultimately, Alzolay would be the Cubs' first true top pitching prospect to make it to the big leagues in the Theo Epstein era. While him making it to the big leagues in 2018 is no guarantee, one would think a need for pitching will arise for the Cubs at some point, whether it be due to injury or simply for September roster expansion.

The Cubs have enjoyed tremendous success in recent years in terms of their top prospects succeeding in the MLB. If the trend continues, Alzolay should be a force to reckon with on the North Side for years to come.