After the 2018 season ended in disappointing fashion — with the offense scuffling post-All-Star break — Cubs president Theo Epstein foreshadowed what could be in store for the team in 2019.
“We have to be an offensive force,” Epstein said. “We should be with the talent on our roster, but it's probably time to stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production. We need to do everything we can to produce offensively."
Friday, the Cubs made a move in the name of production: center fielder Albert Almora Jr. has been demoted to Triple-A, with Addison Russell recalled in his place.
Almora has provided stellar defense this season, but he’s largely struggled at the plate. In 321 at-bats this season, he’s hitting .243/.275/.396, though he does have a career-high 12 home runs. Granted, that career-high comes in a season where the baseball is flying out of the ballpark more than ever.
While one can say that Almora’s struggles this season don’t represent a large sample size, they actually date back to last season. Over his last 162 games, he’s hitting .243/.278/.368, walking just 20 times in 473 plate appearances.
The Cubs demoted Russell to Triple-A following a series of mental lapses on the field. In a game against the Padres on July 20, Russell got thrown out on the basepaths twice, lost a popup in the sun and let another one drop due to miscommunication with Almora. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was blunt in his assessment of Russell after that game.
"He’s gotta straighten some things out," Maddon said on July 20. "He has to. There’s no question. I’m not going to stand here — he’s got to, we’ve talked about his baserunning in the past.
"… The baserunning, there’s some things there — we’re making too many outs on the bases and we’re missing things on the bases that we can’t to be an elite team."
Following Russell's demotion on July 24, Epstein admitted that the Cubs needed more out of the infielder, specifically in terms of his focus.
"Yeah, I think we had hoped that Addison would've put things together by now and be playing at a higher level, at his accustomed level," Epstein said. "He just went through a stretch where we needed a little bit more out of him in terms of his focus and his attention to detail and to get locked in.
"I think that can still happen, but we all felt it was the appropriate move to let him do that in Iowa and see if that part of his game can get a little bit better."
Russell certainly locked in with Iowa; in 15 games following his demotion, he hit .333/.413/.647 to go along with four home runs and 13 RBIs. So, the Cubs not only are getting a player who's focused and producing as of late, but also one who seems to have a fresh sense of confidence.
Demoting Almora has several ripple effects on the Cubs position player group. Since the Cubs acquired Nick Castellanos, Jason Heyward has been manning center field on a frequent basis. Almora’s demotion means that Heyward will see more time in center.
Ian Happ, whom the Cubs also demoted to the minor leagues this season, will also see time in center field with Almora in Iowa. Having Happ play center will allow Heyward to play his natural position in right field from time-to-time, with Castellanos playing left field.
With how Russell has been hitting, he should be the No. 1 everyday second base option. The position has been a revolving door for the Cubs this season, with Ben Zobrist, David Bote, Tony Kemp, Daniel Descalso, Robel Garcia, Happ and Russell each seeing time there. Of course, Russell has to produce at the big league level for this to become reality.
At the very least, though, he gives the Cubs a legitimate backup shortstop behind Javier Báez. With Russell in Iowa, the Cubs were forced to use Bote as Báez’s backup. With all due respect to Bote – who is a solid defender at second and third base – he’s not a regular shortstop, which came up big in Thursday's loss to the Phillies.
Having Russell back gives the Cubs two true shortstops, and they could choose to start him there on occasion to get Báez rest.
Cubs bullpen inches closer to full strength
After Thursday’s disastrous ending, the Cubs bullpen took a major step towards getting back to full strength on Friday. The team activated Brandon Kintzler (right pec inflammation) from the injured list, sending James Norwood to Triple-A in a corresponding move.
Kintzler has emerged as the Cubs’ most reliable reliever and key late-inning arm this season. The 35-year-old holds a stellar 2.33 ERA in 49 games (46 1/3 innings), striking out 40 batters compared to just 10 walks. His stint on the injured-list corresponded with closer Craig Kimbrel (knee) and Steve Cishek (hip) also hitting the shelf, leaving the Cubs thin on late-game relievers.
Kimbrel and Cishek aren’t expected to be out much longer, and it’s plausible that the two could be activated in the next couple of days.
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