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MLB draft: Cubs keeping Brady Aiken on their radar screen

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MLB draft: Cubs keeping Brady Aiken on their radar screen

The Cubs are keeping Brady Aiken on their radar screen.

Actually drafting Aiken – who’s now recovering from Tommy John surgery – would be a huge gamble. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick couldn’t reach an agreement with the Houston Astros amid serious medical concerns that haven’t disappeared.

Theo Epstein’s front office plays the odds, viewing college position players as the safest bets and knowing that history shows pitching can come from anywhere in the draft. The Cubs have used first-round picks on hitters – Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber – in each of the last three drafts.

But the Cubs haven’t completely ruled out Aiken as they gear up for next week’s draft meetings in Chicago, trying to figure out what to do with the No. 9 overall pick on June 8.

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The Cubs had Aiken as the No. 1 player on their board coming out of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego last year. The 18-year-old lefty is a high-risk, high-reward pitcher with enough potential that it’s unrealistic to think he will still be available when the Cubs make their second pick at No. 47 overall.

“We haven’t actually – on purpose – talked about it too much,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “Just because you get caught up in the innuendo and the rumors. We had a great relationship with Brady and his family last year. We were proud of the work that we did – and our area scout did – to get to know them.

“At the appropriate time here in the next week, when we sit down in a draft room and we really start to evaluate the players at the top of this draft, his name will come up, because it was literally a ‘1-1’ talent that didn’t sign.

“It would be very irresponsible to not have a conversation with our doctors, with Brady and his family, just to get an updated breakdown of where he’s at in his rehab, where he’s at mentally, so that he – and the player that he was pre-injury – is allowed to compete against the players that will be on our board this year.

“That’s fair to the player. That’s fair to the Cubs. It’s fair to our fan base to make sure that we just don’t take the easy way out and say: ‘He got hurt, he’s out of our picture.’”

Aiken publicly disclosed his torn UCL and elbow-reconstruction surgery through an essay for The Players’ Tribune – Derek Jeter’s digital publishing venture – in late March. On his Twitter account, he posted a photo from his hospital bed, giving the thumbs-up sign.

“We’ll just take all the information,” Dorey said. “We’ll let our doctors really kind of dig into the medicals, paint a pretty clear picture of what his rehab would look like. And then we’ll just compare the player that we scouted last year against the guys that we have a ton of information on this year – and let them kind of slug it out as magnets on the board.”

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The Cubs don’t have an agenda and will take the best player available. Period. One year after taking an Indiana University catcher/outfielder with the No. 4 overall pick and giving him a below-slot deal ($3.125 million signing bonus), people are talking about whether or not Schwarber could help the Cubs in a pennant race this season.

“It’s not as clear-cut at the top of the draft this year,” Epstein said. “Some of the higher-profile talents got injured, and it’s just one of those draft classes that’s a little bit all over the place, which makes it more difficult, but also creates opportunity.

“We surprised some people last year and we like who we got. I think it’s an opportunity to do that again. When the sort of standout talents aren’t as obvious, it frees you up to take some risks here and there, too, and trust your instincts.”

Another player the Cubs scouted heavily last year – East Carolina University right-hander Jeff Hoffman – fell to the Toronto Blue Jays at the ninth pick after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Whether or not the Cubs are really serious about Aiken – or simply doing due diligence – it’s important to remember that they probably won’t have this kind of access to the draft during the next several years as the big-league team becomes more and more competitive.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion about: Hopefully we’re not picking this high ever again,” Dorey said. “This might be one of our last opportunities to really like go and shoot for the best player, the best impact, because as you start to win, you start to fall down the first round. We (might) not be looking at this quality a player in a long time, from the draft perspective.”

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: