Cubs

Addison Russell, Javy Baez and the state of the Cubs shortstop position

Addison Russell, Javy Baez and the state of the Cubs shortstop position

Addy or Javy?

There isn't quite a position battle brewing at shortstop for the Cubs and Joe Maddon didn't go all Lovie Smith and say something like, "Addison Russell is our shortstop."

But it's also clear who the Cubs' long-term answer is at short, even despite Javy Baez's recent success and Russell's season-long struggles.

Right now, Maddon is just simplifying everything at the shortstop position, rotating the two players on a daily basis.

For the last week (following a string of five straight Russell starts at shortstop), Maddon has penciled in Baez at short one day and Russell the next. 

"It hasn't been complicated," Maddon said. "I've just been going back and forth with them. ... I've just been trying to not run either one into the ground. I've been trying to get them both playing."

Maddon also pointed to the recent play of Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ as determining factors affecting the shortstop spot. 

With the Cubs seeing so many right-handed pitchers lately, Maddon has gone with Happ in center, Jason Heyward in right field and Kyle Schwarber in left, meaning Zobrist has been relegated to second base a lot lately. That's freed Baez up to play more shortstop over the last week.

While he likes how things are playing out right now, Maddon acknowledged the daily shortstop rotation won't stick that way in the long term.

"Once Addy really gets his whole approach going back together again, then everything will come back into place," Maddon said.

Russell has taken a step back offensively this season. He broke out for 21 homers and 95 RBI in his age-22 campaign last year but entered his Sunday night start with a .211 average and .635 OPS.

There is definitely a component of luck to those numbers. 

Russell's batting average on balls in play is only .260, below league average and below the .277 mark he posted last season and .324 BABIP as a rookie.

Russell has also improved on his weak contact, dropping from soft contact 23.7 percent of the time last season to only 14.9 percent in 2017. However, he's also seen a dip in hard-hit balls from 29.3 percent in 2016 to 23.1 percent in two months so far this year.

Overall, Russell's peripheral numbers are right in line with his career marks — or better.

Earlier in the season, Maddon said he would count 2017 as a success for Russell if the young shortstop could cut down on his strikeouts and draw more walks. The Cubs manager thought the rest of the numbers would follow if the plate discipline was good.

Russell's walk rate is down slightly (9.2 percent to 8.7 percent), but he's also cut down on his strikeouts for the second straight season and is only whiffing 21 percent of the time right now.

Against the Cardinals Friday, Russell worked himself into a hitter's count in the fifth inning before striking out and then lined out to right field his next time up in the seventh.

"Keep doin' it," Maddon said. "That's the whole thing — like Schwarbs hitting the grand slam. That's nice; let's do it again. Let's have another couple good at-bats. Just continue to do that."

Meanwhile, Baez is on a tear, hitting .412 with a 1.181 OPS, four homers and 11 RBI over the last 11 games.

But even with those numbers, Baez still has only a .299 on-base percentage for the season and is on pace for just 18 walks compared to 117 strikeouts.

Of course, Baez is also on pace for 27 homers and 75 RBI and his versatility, baseball IQ and age (24) give the Cubs dynamic depth at shortstop until Russell rights the ship.

"It's unusual that we can do that — to have two shortstops that you like to play and that you feel really good about, not many teams can say that," Maddon said. "And that's part of why we can do it.

"If I didn't feel as good about one or the other playing there, the other guy would be playing and you'd just have to wear it if he's having a hard time offensively. But I think Javy's benefitted; Javy's been really good lately.

"And I think I'm seeing better out of Addison also. So let's just keep going. Lotta season left and I think if we do it this way, they're both going to be very fresh at the end of the year."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.