With or without Chase Utley, Cubs banking on young hitters


With or without Chase Utley, Cubs banking on young hitters

The ball has been in Chase Utley’s court, trying to come up with an exit strategy from the Philadelphia Phillies.

It’s up to Utley to leverage his no-trade rights and decide what he wants to do the rest of this season, whether that’s staying in the City of Brotherly Love, trying to make history in a Cubs uniform or going back to his West Coast roots with the Los Angeles Angels or San Francisco Giants.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees have also been floated as possible destinations for the six-time All-Star second baseman. Utley is said to be making playing time the No. 1 priority in his calculus, the chance to showcase his skills and get another contract for next season.

Sure, Utley could help this team, but ultimately the Cubs are going to win or lose with the young hitters they’ve collected through Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration.

“These are our guys,” Epstein said at least four times while meeting with beat writers after a July 31 trade deadline where the Cubs focused on smaller deals for pitching.

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs are still winning big after winning the offseason]

Their guys had no chance against Chris Sale on Sunday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field, something Miguel Montero admitted on Twitter after a 3-1 loss to the White Sox that snapped a nine-game winning streak.

“It’s ok we have to lose sometime,” Montero tweeted. “#WeAreGood.”

Montero said Sale is from another planet. The 6-foot-6, 180-pound lefty who creates all those crazy angles took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before Dexter Fowler knocked a single into left field.

There are going to be days like this. Sale finished with 15 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings. The Cubs struck out 18 times for the third time this season.

Dan Haren — the No. 5 starter the Cubs acquired from the Miami Marlins at the trade deadline — got pulled in the fifth inning after giving up solo home runs to Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez and Melky Cabrera that combined traveled 1,073 feet.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs trying to find a way to unlock Jorge Soler's power]

“We’ve been open from the beginning that we’re going with young players at the big-league level,” Epstein said on July 31. “When you go with young position players, it comes with a lot of excitement. Sometimes it comes with some frustration and then oftentimes excitement again. You have to let your players work their way through slumps and see what it brings you.”

It brought the Cubs within 2 1/2 games of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the chance to host a playoff game at Wrigley Field. The Cubs have gone 15-2 in their last 17 games, building a 3 1/2-game lead over the Giants for the second wild-card spot.

Epstein said the Cubs didn’t want to add “just any bat” on July 31. Utley has cleared waivers and gone 13-for-26 in seven games since recovering from an ankle injury and coming off the disabled list.

But Utley might not see the clearest path to playing time here with manager Joe Maddon valuing Chris Coghlan’s offense (13 homers, .758 OPS) and versatility while trying to not destroy Starlin Castro’s confidence after three All-Star selections.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs bats disappear as Sale, White Sox halt winning streak]

“(The front-office guys are) absolutely out there trying to make us better,” Maddon said. “They’ll ask me what I think. I don’t necessarily want to come out and say we need things. More often than not, the overarching philosophy is what they’re thinking about and then they’ll say: ‘Well, what do you think about this?’

“I kind of like that approach. Because I’m so focused on what we’re doing here right now. I mean that sincerely. I rely on their abilities to make good decisions. It’s up to me to give my opinion when I’m asked.”

Beyond the chemistry issues, Utley is 36 years old and owed around $4 million for the rest of this season, plus a $2 million buyout of his 2016 option (which kicks in at 500 plate appearances but looks like a non-starter now).

With or without Utley, the Cubs are betting on their young hitters for the rest of this season and beyond.

“You got to give these guys a chance to play,” Epstein said, “a chance to learn, a chance to work their way out of slumps and a chance to win for you. These are our guys. We believe in them.”

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


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: