Cubs

Adding Joe Nathan to bullpen could be like Cubs making another trade-deadline splash

Adding Joe Nathan to bullpen could be like Cubs making another trade-deadline splash

MILWAUKEE – As the New York Yankees moved toward ending the bidding war for Aroldis Chapman, the Cubs welcomed Joe Nathan into their clubhouse, hoping a six-time All-Star closer can become a game changer for their bullpen.

At the age of 41 – and after two Tommy John surgeries on his right elbow – Nathan won’t be throwing 105 mph like Chapman could soon at Wrigley Field. But even if the Cubs aren’t getting Nathan at the height of his powers, it’s still another potential upgrade before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

“We’ll see,” said Nathan, who earned his first win since September 2014 by throwing a scoreless sixth inning during Sunday’s 6-5 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. “These guys obviously have done something special the first half of the season and put themselves in a great (position) to make the postseason. 

“Time will tell who is the right fit. And if they’re going to make more moves, who knows? I’m sure they’re checking to see what’s out there. But for us, we just want to concentrate on today and getting a ‘W.’”

Nathan showed his guts, experience and presence by recovering from a leadoff triple and a walk to strike out the heart of Milwaukee’s order – Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter – and keep the Cubs within three runs before a seventh-inning comeback. 

That’s the dimension the Cubs wanted to add to their bullpen, activating off the 60-day disabled list a reliever who’s eighth on the all-time list with 377 career saves and optioning Adam Warren to Triple-A Iowa to stretch him out as an extra starter.

The Cubs believe Nathan is still hungry, even after making more than $85 million in his career, wanting to write a different ending after facing only one hitter with the Detroit Tigers last year, his season ending on Opening Day.

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Nathan was willing to take the prorated major-league minimum, sweat through the heat at the team’s Arizona complex and try to find himself again at Double-A Tennessee and Iowa.
 
“Right from Day 1, it really wasn’t a question of if I’m going to try to come back from this,” Nathan said. “Why not? Why wouldn’t I at least put my best foot forward? If I’m going to rehab it, I might as well go 100 percent at it and see where it goes. 

“The good test for me was I was living at home, going through it, bringing the kids to school, doing homework, doing normal stuff. At the same time, I still had the itch. 

“That kind of told me, too. If I was home, and I was like, ‘You know what, this is kind of nice,’ it would have been easy to just say: ‘No, I’m good.’ But I still had that kick in the butt to get up and come back to this game.”

This is what Nathan wanted, to be back in the middle of a pennant race and dropped into the biggest story in baseball.

“I almost needed a defibrillator for the run into the mound,” Nathan said. “I was just trying to calm myself down.”

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

cubs_podcast_offense_slid.jpg
USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: