Cubs

Addison Russell arrives ahead of schedule for red-hot Cubs

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Addison Russell arrives ahead of schedule for red-hot Cubs

Addison Russell could be the poster child if the 2015 Cubs are ahead of schedule.

Deep down, Russell probably would have considered this a good year if he stayed healthy and productive at Triple-A Iowa, got a September call-up and put himself in position to make the 2016 Opening Day lineup.

“No, I didn’t see any of this stuff,” Russell said. “I really wasn’t even expecting to be up in the league this year. It just kind of goes back to my work ethic. I just try to get better. The Cubs gave me this opportunity. I’m just trying to take full advantage of it.

“It’s been a hard year, (but) things are looking up.”

No doubt, the Cubs have felt the growing pains and understand they aren’t a lock for the playoffs yet. But after Saturday’s 6-3 victory over the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, it would only take a 23-24 finish for the Cubs to reach 90 wins.

[MORE: Arrieta leads the charge as Cubs keep right on winning]

White Sox fans will have to get used to the idea of seeing Russell, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler for years to come. That group of rookies doesn’t even include Anthony Rizzo, a National League MVP candidate who just turned 26 and could remain under club control through the 2021 season.

This is the baseball nightmare on the South Side: The Cubs morphing into a perennial contender at a renovated Wrigley Field and becoming the game’s biggest story.

It’s misleading to say the Cubs are now a season ahead of schedule in Year 4 of the Theo Epstein administration. There have been so many recalibrations between the franchise’s financial situation, three different managers in three seasons and the unpredictable nature of scouting and player development.

“I don’t think it’s quite that simple,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I do feel like this year was always a little bit of a land of uncertainty. You don’t know what to expect when you have effectively four rookies that are playing every day. You don’t know how well these guys are going to come along.

“It doesn’t surprise me what these guys are doing. But I think us expecting them to do it would have been probably a little bit unfair. So I don’t believe in the year-too-early (idea).

“We’re playing good baseball right now. But expecting these guys to produce at this level – at this age – would have (been) unfair to them.”

[MORE: Cubs-White Sox could use more Pedro Strop vs. Alexei Ramirez]

Russell is still just 21 and has only 14 Triple-A games on his resume. He was playing at Double-A Tennessee at this time last year after that blockbuster Jeff Samardzija trade with the Oakland A’s.

Russell is now the everyday shortstop for a legitimate contender that has won nine games in a row and 15 of its last 16.

In front of a sellout crowd on Saturday night, Russell sparked the Cubs with a two-out double in the third inning, driving a ball into the left-field corner and scoring on Dexter Fowler’s double down the right-field line to make it a 1-1 game.

Russell drove a two-out, ground-rule double over the left-field fence in the fifth inning, scoring the go-ahead run from second base when Schwarber singled into right field (after the White Sox decided to intentionally walk Fowler). As Russell slid into home plate, his left foot just beat the tag from White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers.

“You can just kind of see the fire in (our) eyes,” Russell said. “We all want to compete. We all want to win. We’re trying our best to make a big impact on this team. We’re just trying to do the small things, make the routine plays and just help the team win.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Russell basically learned how to play second base on the fly this season and handled what could have been a difficult situation with Starlin Castro moving off shortstop.

“You just have to dust off the cobwebs,” Russell said. “I think that’s my natural position. I believe that I can be even better there.”

Remember when the narrative became the Cubs eventually hitting the rookie wall?

“We definitely have to step it up,” Russell said. “We’re competing right now. That’s all we need to try to do – give 110 percent. Some days you’re not going to feel good. But you just have to push through it and do what’s best for the team.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

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.