Cubs

Cubs trust Willson Contreras can handle Jake Arrieta down the stretch

Cubs trust Willson Contreras can handle Jake Arrieta down the stretch

In spring training, the Cubs made sure to give their veteran pitchers a scouting report on Willson Contreras, telling them this is the catcher of the future, maybe as soon as the middle of this season, so you better get used to him. Those great expectations for Contreras even influenced how the Cubs coordinated those mundane early-morning drills in Arizona. 

“I could see he was very eager and he was definitely not afraid,” manager Joe Maddon said. “With all respect to everybody he may have to catch, he was not going to be intimidated by it. I love that.”

The Cubs pushed Contreras onto the fast track, and are now phasing out Miguel Montero, watching the rookie catch Jake Arrieta for the first time in The Show during Thursday afternoon’s 9-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. 

With seven walks, Arrieta didn’t look like the National League’s reigning Cy Young Award winner, but that says more about his command/timing issues this year than the development of Contreras. 

“Really bright,” Maddon said. “Really retains things extremely well and has a good feel and understanding of what’s going on in the game. His mound trips have been great. 

“Of course, he throws. He’s actually blocking and receiving the ball better. I don’t know if that’s just a more comfortable moment for him or not. But all that stuff has gotten better with the year in progress. 

“He’s swinging the bat well. He’s getting good at-bats. But I’ve been really focused on the defensive component, and every part of that has gotten better.”

Arrieta retired the first eight batters he faced, and took a no-hitter into the fourth inning before giving up back-to-back walks to Hernan Perez and Chris Carter, setting up the three-run homer Kirk Nieuwenhuis drilled into the right-center field bleachers.

Arrieta later exited the mound with a 7-4 lead, two outs in the sixth inning and runners on the corners before reliever Spencer Patton walked in the fifth run.

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“Willson and I are pretty comfortable working with each other,” said Arrieta, who’s still an All-Star with a 15-5 record and a 2.75 ERA. “He knows what I like to do. I know his catching style from behind the plate. That really wasn’t an issue. It was really just (bad) execution, not hitting spots in a couple key situations.”

How the relationship between Arrieta and Contreras evolves could become a major storyline across the season’s final six weeks. 

“The game plan from the beginning has been a good one,” Maddon said. “Now you’re seeing it actually being carried out, (while we’re) getting close to September. But there was stuff that we had talked about in February (that’s) playing out right now.”

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: