Theo Epstein doesn't see a shortstop controversy for Cubs with Addison Russell nearing return

Theo Epstein doesn't see a shortstop controversy for Cubs with Addison Russell nearing return

Theo Epstein doesn't sense a shortstop controversy brewing in the final weeks of the Cubs season.

With Addison Russell on the cusp of returning, Epstein essentially shot down any talk of Russell moving to second base and keeping Javy Baez at short.

"Thought? Maybe. Formal discussions? Not really," Epstein said before Friday's 8-2 win over the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. "I think it's pretty well established with the body of work with this team — we're a good defensive unit when Addy's at short and Javy's at second.

"I don't think you can go wrong with how you throw those guys out there. But that's how we've been and that's probably how we'll be for the rest of this season."

Russell hasn't played since Aug. 2 with a foot injury and in his stead, Baez has emerged as a force for the Cubs both offensively and defensively. In those 39 games, Baez has hit .298 with an .866 OPS, clubbing eight homers with 26 RBI and 31 runs while playing nearly every inning at shortstop in that time.

But even with all those flashy plays, FanGraphs evaluates Baez's shortstop defense as -2 Defensive Runs Saved, while Russell is at +15 DRS on the year. By that one metric, Russell is the second-best shortstop in baseball, behind only Los Angeles Angels' Andrelton Simmons (+27 DRS).

Russell said his return against the Cardinals this weekend would be "ideal" but the Cubs aren't getting caught up with that timeline, knowing the young infielder needs to get through his Saturday workout without issue. 

And once Russell does return, the Cubs won't push him to the limits or let him play every inning of every game immediately. Joe Maddon confirmed Friday morning they'll work Russell in slowly as they have with dynamic catcher Willson Contreras.

So even if Russell immediately slots in at shortsto once he's back, Baez still figures to move over to the most demanding position on the infield on at least a part-time basis.

"Addy's availability is something we'll have to monitor," Epstein said. "Unfortunately this time of year, there's no place for a rehab assignment. We're gonna evaluate him tomorrow a little bit, decide how much he can play and if he'll be able to play nine [innings] right away as well. 

"We're gonna be mixing and matching no matter what."

Russell knows he needs reps and he's been taking swings in the batting cage and on the field while also taking grounders and running "pain-free," Maddon said.

If Russell returns late in the Cardinals series or early next week, that only leaves him with somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-13 games left in the season to gear up for the playoffs.

Not to mention the importance of those games, with eight remaining after this weekend against the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers.

"My confidence will build the more at-bats I get, obviously," Russell said. "But yeah, it's all about seeing as many pitches as I can, hopefully, before I get into a game. And then just take everything in that first game and build off that."

Assuming the Cubs do make the playoffs, would there be a question on if Russell would be active for the postseason with so little time to find a groove?

"No," Epstein said flatly. "If he's available, he would not be a tough call on a playoff roster.

"Just to clarify — if he's available, he's on the playoff roster."

Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?


Brian Duensing's return to Cubs is big, but where does he fit in new-look bullpen?

Brian Duensing isn't the marquee pitcher Cubs fans were hoping their team would sign on the morning of Jan. 17, but he is one of the heroes they need.

Duensing is back in the Cubs' bullpen for the next two years at a discount of $7 million. It's a raise for him — he made $2 million in 2017 — but he left a lot of money on the table, joining players like Ben Zobrist who signed for less.

The veteran lefty was somebody the Cubs' "Geek Squad" and scouting department targeted last winter and made a priority to sign a year ago.

That worked out awfully well, as the 34-year-old Duensing put up the best season of his life with a 2.74 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and struck out a career-high 8.8 batters per nine innings.

Even Duensing himself was surprised by the strikeout totals:

"A lot of swings and misses — I don't know what that's about, to be honest," Duensing said back in August when he joined the Cubs Talk Podcast. "I really don't know what's going on there. Just things are working really well right now and hopefully they continue."

Duensing's success didn't quite continue on a linear path from there, as he followed up a stellar August (1.93 ERA) with a 4.82 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in September while striking out only six batters in 9.1 innings.

That poor last month was part of the reason why Duensing fell out of Joe Maddon's circle of trust entering the postseason, and while the veteran southpaw put up a 1.69 ERA and allowed just five baserunners in 5.1 innings, he didn't pitch often in high-leverage situations in October.

As for where Duensing fits in the Cubs bullpen in 2018 and 2019, he provides another reliable arm and helps work toward the front office's goal of getting more strike-throwers in a bullpen that struggled in that department in 2017.

Duensing walked just 18 batters in 62.1 innings and was not a part of the overall problem that saw the Cubs' bullpen post one of the worst BB/9 rates in Major League Baseball.

Of Duensing's 68 appearances in 2017, 15 of them went for more than three outs. While he wasn't a true long-relief option like Mike Montgomery, the former Minnesota Twin does have a background as a starter and can help eat up innings if a Cubs starter is knocked out early or the other bullpen arms need a rest.

He also provides another left-handed option for the 'pen with Justin Wilson a major question mark after his struggles in Chicago and Montgomery currently slotted in as a starter and expected to serve in a swingman capacity for parts of 2018. Reliable left-handed relievers are in short supply in the majors, and the Cubs are investing as much capital as they can in their bullpen.

Duensing probably isn't a guy that would fill in at closer at all if Brandon Morrow is injured or ineffective — Duensing has just two career saves — but he's another glue guy to a bullpen that looks like this:

Brandon Morrow
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Justin Wilson
Steve Cishek
Justin Grimm
Brian Duensing

Another arm — whether that's Montgomery or somebody else — should slot in there by the end of spring training as the Cubs are expected to roll with eight arms in their bullpen for much of the season.

The big question with Duensing is how he'll be used in October, assuming the Cubs make it there again. Maddon's bullpen usage in the postseason has been oft-questioned, but he clearly saw something in Duensing that made him lose trust on the game's biggest stage.

Does that happen again in 2018?

Brian Duensing returning to Cubs' bullpen on two-year deal


Brian Duensing returning to Cubs' bullpen on two-year deal

The Cubs added another piece to their 2018 bullpen Wednesday.

Brian Duensing will return to the North Side relief corps on a two-year deal.

The veteran left-hander had himself a very strong 2017 campaign, his first year with the Cubs, turning in a 2.74 ERA in 62.1 innings of work over 68 appearances. He struck out 61 batters and walked just 18.

Duensing made five appearances during the postseason, surrendering one run in 5.1 innings against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. That one run came in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.

Duensing's return helps to strengthen a bullpen with some new faces and some question marks heading into spring training. Wade Davis departed via free agency and signed a record deal with the Colorado Rockies to be their new closer, meaning closing duties will likely fall to free-agent acquisition Brandon Morrow, who pitched in plenty of late-inning and high-leverage situations with the Dodgers last season. The Cubs also added former Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners closer Steve Cishek in free agency. Carl Edwards Jr. and Pedro Strop return from last year's team and figure to play important roles, as well.

And apparently, Duensing took less money in order to come back to the Cubs.