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."

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

Nationals 'love' Kris Bryant but potential holdup could stymie trade talks

With Anthony Rendon officially joining the Angels, the Nationals have a vacancy at third base.

Washington has options to replace Rendon; Josh Donaldson is still available in free agency, and Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could potentially be had via trade.

The Nationals have reportedly inquired with the Cubs about Bryant, and while they “love” the 27-year-old, their focus is on Donaldson, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. The Cubs would likely seek center fielder Victor Robles in a deal, a holdup on Washington's end, Heyman said.

From the Cubs perspective, it would make all the sense in the world to ask for Robles. He’s 22 years old, plays excellent defense (22 DRS in 2019, No. 1 in MLB by center fielders) and is only scratching the surface as a big-leaguer. Robles is projected to be a star, but Bryant already is one. If the Nationals want Bryant badly enough, they’ll have to sacrifice talent in a deal.

On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why Washington would be unwilling to trade Robles, who's under team control through 2024. Bryant will hit free agency after 2021, but if he wins his ongoing grievance case, he'll hit the open market after next season.

Nonetheless, if the Nationals do engage in Bryant trade talks, you can bet the Cubs will at least ask for Robles in return. A trade could be worked out without him, but for a Cubs team searching for better center field production, you've got to wonder who could be more enticing than Robles.

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Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

Willson Contreras and his boundless energy join Cubs All-Decade Team

With the 2010s coming to a close, NBC Sports Chicago is unveiling its Cubs All-Decade Team, highlighting the players who made the biggest impacts on the organization from 2010-19.

It didn’t take long for Willson Contreras to introduce himself to Major League Baseball. On the first pitch he saw as a big-leaguer, the Cubs catcher cranked a two-run home run to center field — on Sunday Night Baseball, nonetheless.

That moment was a sign of things to come for Contreras, who has since established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. The 27-year-old holds a career .267/.350/.470 line with a 117 wRC+ and 67 home runs in four seasons. He’s started back-to-back All-Star Games, the first Cubs catcher to do so since Gabby Hartnett (1937-38).

Contreras offers so much to the Cubs besides his bat. His cannon of an arm and athleticism behind the plate are integral to the Cubs controlling opposing run games. His pitch framing is a work in progress, and admittedly, he could improve in this area by throwing behind runners less, ensuring he gets strikes called.

However, back-picking is part of Contreras’ value. He may lose some strike calls by not sticking a frame, but there've been plenty of occasions where Contreras' arm has provided the Cubs with a spark. His boundless energy is unmeasurable, but its importance to the Cubs — who feed off of it — cannot be overstated.

There are areas where Contreras can improve, and that's a scary thought. But he's already is one of the best backstops in baseball and has earned the starting catcher spot on our Cubs All-Decade Team.

Also considered: Welington Castillo, Miguel Montero, David Ross, Geovany Soto