Cubs

Questions about Cubs playoff rotation begin with Jason Hammel

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Questions about Cubs playoff rotation begin with Jason Hammel

The Cubs will take their chances with Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation, believing they have two frontline starters to pitch deep into the playoffs and push a World Series contender through at least the next three Octobers.

The Cubs are playing with so much confidence right now they probably don’t want to hear it: But what about Jason Hammel facing the St. Louis Cardinals twice in a five-game playoff series? 

Hammel didn’t really answer that question or erase all the doubts on Monday night, even as the Cubs cut their magic number down to four with a 9-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field.

“It’s very fluid, absolutely, it’s fluid,” manager Joe Maddon said. “There’s a lot of discussion involved in that part of the rotation. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s not.

“We’ll see how we play it out.” 

Hammel lasted five innings against a last-place team, giving up four runs (three earned) and hanging around long enough to get his ninth win.

[MORE CUBS: Theo Epstein - Time is right for Cubs to stand up to Cardinals]

Hammel gave up back-to-back singles to open the game and allowed the first run to score with a wild pick-off throw to first base. He stared out into the distance when Adam Lind hammered a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers in the fifth inning.

“All I can do is stay positive,” Hammel said. “I’m confident in myself. I’m never going to be questioning (myself). Obviously, you’d like to see some better results right now. But I know what I can do here. 

“It’s disappointing that it doesn’t look that great right now. But sometimes you just got to compete with what you got – and that’s it. Trying to fix it in the middle of a pennant race obviously isn’t the easiest thing to do. 

“But I guarantee I’m out there working hard trying to figure it out and small things are falling into place.” 

If the Cubs are going to go on a long postseason run, they will need the pitcher Maddon talked up as a potential All-Star during a terrific first half (2.86 ERA and 105 strikeouts against 18 walks in 103-plus innings).

Not the Hammel who has looked out of rhythm since the hamstring injury that was probably more serious than the Cubs let on initially (5.43 ERA since the All-Star break). 

“We’ll see if we can sharpen him up a bit,” Maddon said. “Velocity is good. Break is good. It’s all about location from what I’m seeing. It’s not necessarily stuff. It’s just where the ball is going out of his hand.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But even Maddon’s relentlessly positive spin has its limits: “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that his command was sharp. It’s not true. And he’ll be the first one to tell you that.”

The Cubs have essentially worked around Hammel during this second-half surge, becoming the National League’s hottest team with a powerful, diversified offense, a mix-and-match bullpen (13 relievers on Monday night) and a star manager who’s not afraid to push buttons.

Maddon has kept Hammel on a short leash, not worrying about hurt feelings and managing like it’s already October.    

“It’s all about the team right now,” Maddon said. “I would want to believe that these young professionals understand that it’s not about them. Hopefully, they’re all at Stage 5 right now where all they want to do is win. That’s what you’re looking for. That’s what it takes. Any kind of selfish thought (from) anybody…

“Baseball narcissism’s not going to work right now. You cannot just be about you. You have to be about everybody else, whether it’s to be pinch-hit for, placed in a batting order, pulled from a game, to whine about that right now would not be appropriate.”

Hammel is a good dude in the clubhouse, friendly with the media and thoughtful in how he answers questions. But there is also a real competitive streak to him.

“If I’m the third guy, it is what it is,” Hammel said. “It’s past the ego thing. You check your ego at the door once October hits. You got to put your best guy out there. And I want to be that guy.”

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: