Cubs

Joe Maddon won’t connect all the ‘negative dots’ around Cubs

Joe Maddon won’t connect all the ‘negative dots’ around Cubs

The Cubs have used the Cincinnati Reds as a punching bag this season, beating up on the kind of rebuilding team they used to roll out at Wrigley Field. This was supposed to be a chance to pad the record, pile up stats and take out some frustrations. Both Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter and Kris Bryant’s three-homer, 5-for-5 laser show happened at Great American Ball Park.

But even seeing the Reds on the North Side – and the national exposure from seven Cubs earning All-Star selections – didn’t distract from some of the deeper issues for this World Series-or-bust team.

“Everybody goes through these trials,” manager Joe Maddon said after Wednesday afternoon’s 5-3 loss. “I can’t connect a bunch of negative dots.”

The Cubs have now lost four of their last five series, and five of their last seven, looking like a team that needs an All-Star break, if not some reinforcements by the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

The Cubs didn’t need to use their sixth starter until July 6, a remarkable run of pitching health that begins to explain their 100-win pace but probably won’t last. That’s why Adam Warren – the swingman acquired from the New York Yankees in the Starlin Castro trade – returned from a tune-up at Triple-A Iowa to face a Reds lineup that still has Joey Votto and some interesting hitters.

Warren is an in-case-of-emergency option at a time when Arrieta is still trying to rediscover his Cy Young Award feel, Jon Lester is coming off perhaps the worst start of his career, Jason Hammel might be beginning another second-half fade and John Lackey is in the middle of his age-37 season. 

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“Everybody’s talking about the offensive run differential,” Maddon said. “But it’s all about starting pitching. Period. 

“We’ve run into a little bit of a rough patch. That’s going to happen. But if you look around baseball right now, I’m seeing a lot of double-digit to one, double-digit to two wins. Pitchers get tired, man, regardless of their (willingness) to concede to that point or not, which they never will. That’s why you have to be kind of proactive regarding doing things like we’re doing right now involving a sixth starter.

“Protect these guys like the family jewels, man, because starting pitching, you’re not going to go out there and shake a tree and find them. They’re not going to be there.” 

Warren limited the Reds to one run across five innings – a Zack Cozart homer leading off the game at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat. Warren threw 93 pitches in this spot start, allowing only two more hits and giving up zero walks after an up-and-down performance as a reliever (4.56 ERA).

But that won’t do much for a bullpen where Justin Grimm has a 5.59 ERA, there are no lefty options besides Travis Wood and Joel Peralta just got designated for assignment after a four-inning audition. This time, it was Trevor Cahill giving up the go-ahead, three-run homer to Tucker Barnhart in the seventh inning.

“It’s more likely a snapshot,” Maddon said, “just based on people in and out of the lineup right now. The bullpen isn’t 100 percent. We’re experimenting with different things.

“The big part is we need to do better in the latter part of the game scoring runs, too. If it’s close, or we get behind, or even if it’s tied, we’re just not doing a really good job of finishing off games offensively.”

That relentless lineup everyone talked about in April is 1-30 when trailing entering the ninth inning. Miguel Montero got charged with four more stolen bases, meaning the veteran catcher has gone 3-for-42 in throwing out runners this season.

With David Ross on the seven-day concussion disabled list, Lester will have to throw to rookie Willson Contreras instead of his personal catcher this weekend against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. And Maddon was saying it’s doubtful Dexter Fowler (hamstring injury) will return before the All-Star break, leaving it unclear when the leadoff guy will go on a rehab assignment and if he can play in next week’s All-Star Game.

“I really can’t explain it right now,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “But we’re still going to try and go out there and get the job done. Obviously, the past few weeks, it hasn’t been working. But we still have high hope and high faith. We just got to go to the next day and get better.” 

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: