Cubs

Where do Cubs go from here with Addison Russell and Javier Baez?

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USA TODAY

Where do Cubs go from here with Addison Russell and Javier Baez?

A scout from a potential playoff opponent asked the question while covering the Cubs in late September: Why is Addison Russell still playing shortstop over Javier Baez?

An ego thing, to make sure they didn’t lose Russell near the end of a difficult year from a personal/professional standpoint, knowing they’d need his clutch hitting in October? A timing issue, because Russell hadn’t played second base in two years and would need to relearn the angles on double plays? Maybe manager Joe Maddon’s stubborn belief in his player evaluations?

If the Cubs don’t have a Starlin Castro-level shortstop controversy, they will have some interesting discussions in an offseason where at least five of Maddon’s coaches have either been fired or taken jobs elsewhere and team president Theo Epstein has already signaled that he will probably have to deal major-league talent to fix the rotation and/or bullpen.

Trading either middle infielder sounds extreme when there are durability/off-the-field concerns with Russell and unfinished aspects to Baez’s game and both come with early-20s, 20-plus-homer potential.

What about flipping Russell back to second base and making Baez the shortstop?

“I’d be lying if I said those conversations don’t come up from time to time, either just informally in the locker room or strategically behind the scenes,” Epstein said. “There’s not one person in the organization who’s pounding the table to make the switch, or at least who will voice that opinion.”

Epstein laughed at that line during his end-of-season Wrigley Field news conference, and it was interesting that he didn’t completely dismiss the question after three straight trips to the National League Championship Series.

“We encourage open dissent, so I would assume no one’s pounding the table for it,” Epstein said. “But there’s also no one in the organization who isn’t sort of like thrilled when Javy is at shortstop and intrigued by what he could do on an everyday basis.”

The American League scout noticed the issues Russell had on plays to his right, struggling at times to accurately throw the ball to first base and beyond the cut of the infield grass. The metrics still love Russell, who got credited with 15 defensive runs saved — the second-most among all big-league shortstops — even while playing only 808-plus innings this season.

Baez has the more traditional, powerful arm for a shortstop. He proved he could handle the position, getting in rhythm while playing 30 straight games there — and 40 out of 41 — as Russell dealt with a strained right foot/plantar fasciitis problem that lasted from early August through the middle of September.

A Cubs team built around depth and versatility could lose an All-Star shortstop for that long and still comfortably win the NL Central race, which is another compelling reason to keep this World Series core together.

Baez (23 homers, .796 OPS) also appeared to be making great strides at the plate, though he would look lost during an 0-for-20 start to the playoffs, which shows how quickly these snapshots can change.

But Maddon’s big idea — that Russell played the steady, boring, chrome-free defense the manager loved while Baez still needed to work on making the routine plays routinely — didn’t really pass the eye test anymore.

The way the Los Angeles Dodgers dominated the Cubs in all phases during the NLCS — and knowing how much heavy lifting Epstein’s front office will have to do this winter — means everything should be looked at with a fresh set of eyes.

“Addie’s a special player, too,” Epstein said. “If you look at his defensive rankings compared to the other shortstops out there, he’s a special defensive shortstop in his own right. So the current thinking — Joe’s strong belief — is that we’re better with Addie at short and Javy at second when they’re both on the field. And that we’re typically better when they’re both on the field.

“So unless someone does stand up and not only pound the table — but make a really convincing case —  that’s the way it’s going to be. But we don’t believe in anything hard and fast around here. And we’ll continue to evaluate it, continue to have those fun discussions about it, and we’ll see where it leads going forward.”

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

Jason Heyward predicts he will be the MVP of 2018 Cubs

“Who will be the Cubs’ 2018 team MVP?”

Jason Heyward: “Me!”

No hesitation, no pause. Just an honest answer from a confident 28-year old with a $184 million contract.

Nobody wants to succeed more at the plate than the Cubs’ two-time Gold Glove award winner, but the offense has been downright ugly (.243, 18 HR, 108 RBI in 268 games).

Despite not performing up to a megadeal, Heyward has no problem talking about his contract:

“It is what it is, I earned it," Heyward said. "I earned that part of it. For me, it’s awesome. To be where I want to be, that’s the most important thing.”

After spending time talking at Cubs Convention speaking with Heyward, his manager and six of his other teammates, it’s no surprise that it was Heyward who delivered the now-famous Game 7 “Rain Delay Speech.”

His teammates adore him.

Question to Ben Zobrist: “Who’s your favorite teammate of all-time at any level?”

After a 10-second pause: “Jason Heyward.”

That definitely says something coming from a 36-year-old, three-time All-Star and World Series MVP.

For the true blue Cubs fans that can’t stand Heyward and his untradeable contract, sorry, his teammates and manager have nothing but good things to say. 

By all accounts, Heyward is a quality human being despite his shortcomings in the batter’s box the last two seasons.

And his goals for an offensive renaissance in 2018 are simple and basic:

“Just being in the lineup every game.”

His teammates will be behind him 100 percent, even if the fans are not.

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

How Addison Russell plans to keep nagging arm/foot injuries at bay in 2018

Addison Russell doesn't have time to think about whether or not Javy Baez is coming for the starting shortstop gig.

Russell is too busy making sure he's able to perform at his physical peak for as much of 2018 as possible after a rough few years in that regard.

The soon-to-be-24-year-old only played in 110 games last year as he missed more than a month with a foot injury. He also has a history of hamstring injuries (including the one that kept him out of the 2015 NLCS) and a sore throwing arm that has cropped up at times throughout the last few years (though whether the arm is an issue or not depends on who you ask).

Russell admits his arm has been an issue and he has a new plan of attack this winter that will carry into the spring.

"I've been doing a throwing program," Russell said. "I feel like in the past, with my arm, I started throwing a little bit too early in spring training.

"This year, in the offseason, just kinda ease into it a little bit. In the offseason last year, I feel like I threw a little bit too much. Once midseason hit, it was all the downward effect of me throwing too early in the offseason.

"Having that in mind, taking things easier in the offseason and then going into spring training and then once the season's here, maybe around a quarter of the way through the season, start revving it up and that way, I'll be able to last with both my foot and my arm."

Russell had a bad case of plantar fasciitis last summer that also affected his ability to throw the ball to first base.

He joked he feels like an old man because he is happy he can now wake up without any pain in the foot, but still makes sure he rolls his foot on a golf ball to keep things loose.

With regards to his offseason workouts, Russell is prioritizing quality over quantity and he's taken full advantage of the longer offseason that featured far less distractions than a year ago when the Cubs were coming off the first World Series championship in 108 years.

"I'm getting a little bit older and I think a little wiser when it comes to training and knowing my body," Russell said. "With that being said, it's just kinda being in tune to my body more than pounding out weights.

"Definitely running and cardio is something that has been beneficial to my career in the past. I'm keeping up with that."

Between the foot and arm modifications to his training regimen, Russell is hoping to cut down on some of his throwing errors that plagued him in 2017 and try to get back to the hitter he was when he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 108 runs in 168 games between the 2016 regular season and postseason.

"Definitely I want to be in the All-Star Game this next year," Russell said. "I feel like with the type of skillset that I have and the type of guys around me, I think that could be a goal that I could hit.

"Smaller goals as far as staying consistent with my workouts. Remaining flexible is a huge goal that I wanna hit this year. I see a lot of veteran guys after ballgames stretching and they've been playing for quite a while, so it definitely works out for them.

"Just taking something from veteran guys and kinda incorporating it into my game and picking their ear and listening to how they prepare and how to keep your body in shape is beneficial, for sure."

To make the All-Star Game, Russell would need to get out to a hot start, which is something the Cubs and their fans would love to see. His steady presence in the lineup and as a defensive anchor contributed to the inconsistencies of the 2017 Cubs.

Entering a pivotal season in his development, Russell has emerged as one of the biggest X-factors surrounding the Cubs entering 2018. 

The entire Addison Russell 1-on-1 interview will air Friday night on NBC Sports Chicago.