Cubs

Do Cubs have enough pitching to finish the pennant race?

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Do Cubs have enough pitching to finish the pennant race?

For all the talk about rookies hitting the wall — and how a young and inexperienced group will handle pennant-race pressure — the biggest issue facing the Cubs might be the rotation that put them in a playoff position.

Forget Jon Lester’s yips for a moment and his control-alt-delete performance in Wednesday night’s 15-8 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field. It happens, even to a $155 million pitcher with two World Series rings and three All-Star selections on his resume.

The Tigers knocked out Lester in the third inning, blasting three home runs and jumping out to a 7-0 lead. The issues are bigger than Lester when outfielder Chris Denorfia is pitching in the ninth inning of a two-game interleague series sweep that saw Detroit generate 25 runs and 40 hits.

Take a wide-angle look, and there’s Jason Hammel admitting he’s been out of sync after a hamstring injury, failing to finish six innings in seven starts since the Fourth of July.

[MORE CUBS: No Chase Utley, but Cubs hope Chris Coghlan could become their Ben Zobrist]

There’s Kyle Hendricks watching old Double-A video, trying to diagnose the problems that have led to a 5.29 ERA in six starts after the All-Star break.

There’s Dan Haren in what are probably his final weeks before retirement, getting by with guts and intelligence near the end of a long and distinguished career.

“If there was health issues, I’d be more concerned,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s no health issues. That would be my greater concern, if it was something like: ‘My shoulder’s barking a bit.’

“During the course of a year, guys are always going to go through some struggles. I think Jason’s very fixable. I think Kyle’s very fixable. Danny Haren ... this guy is a tremendous competitor, so I have a lot of faith in him, too.”

[MORE CUBS: Jason Hammel searching for answers after Tigers overpower Cubs]

The Cubs are on pace for around 90 wins and a wild-card spot because their rotation has been so reliable, beginning the day with a 3.51 ERA overall.

The Cubs will have to lean on their pitching infrastructure and come up with some answers, because they don’t have the stockpile of young arms that helped Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays teams win 90-plus games five times between 2008 and 2013.

“The only thing with Kyle — from my mouth to his ears — is to trust yourself and pitch to contact because that’s who you are,” Maddon said. “Let our defense play. I’ve always talked about him staying in better counts. I know when he stays in better counts and works his stuff off of that, he’s pretty effective.

“Hammer, he’s probably throwing the ball harder than he has in awhile. And I think that actually works against him. I think he needs to back off and make better pitches with less velocity, more effective velocity. When he does that, he’s going to be fine.

“Again, if they were injured, I’d be concerned. But they’re not.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs waiting for breakthrough moment with Jon Lester’s throwing issue]

Even Jake Arrieta’s evolution into one of the game’s best pitchers comes with a warning label: The 29-year-old power right-hander has already reached a career-high 162 innings, and there are still six-plus weeks left in the regular season.

“You try to monitor it, but the guy’s like such a freak when it comes to working out and strength levels,” Maddon said. “I watch it all the time. (But) with him, he’s a little bit older (and) he’s been around, so I don’t have as great of a concern with him. But (we) definitely want to keep an eye on it.”

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: