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."

Cubs add catcher José Lobatón on minor league deal with invite to Summer Camp

Cubs add catcher José Lobatón on minor league deal with invite to Summer Camp

The Cubs signed catcher José Lobatón to a minor league deal on Tuesday with an invitation to Summer Camp, per the club's transactions page.

Lobatón is a career .215/.293/.319 hitter and known more for his work behind the plate. He last played in the majors with the Mets in 2018, spending 2019 in Triple-A with the Mariners and Dodgers. He's also previously played for the Padres (2009), Rays (2011-13) and Nationals (2014-17).

Lobatón gives the Cubs veteran catching depth in the unique 2020 season. Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini are one of baseball's best 1-2 punches, and Josh Phegley could secure a spot on the club's initial 30-man roster, which must then be cut to 28 players after two weeks and 26 two weeks after that.

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The club hasn't announced if Lobatón will join the Wrigley Field training group or head to the alternate site in South Bend.


How Cubs' coronavirus precautions add challenge to already daunting season

How Cubs' coronavirus precautions add challenge to already daunting season

Maybe this is as good as baseball’s coronavirus testing gets.

Players, managers, coaches and staff want better, and many say they expect continued improvement.

But with a week left before teams start leaving individual bubbles to travel for games, this may be where tests of faith start to fill the gaps in testing for the virus.

And that means players might have decisions to make all over again. It already means teams have been troubleshooting how scenarios that played out at Wrigley Field twice this week might be managed during games days.

“I think some more players will opt out,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said Wednesday after the Cubs held out six players from workouts as a precaution over “pending” results from Monday’s test.

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That could be an immediate cost. Thirteen players already have declined to accept the health risk and play this season, including Giants star Buster Posey and former Cy Young Award winners David Price and Felix Hernandez.

Angels superstar Mike Trout and Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish are among several others who have said they haven’t ruled out joining the 13, depending how safe things look as the game inches closer to a 60-game season to be played in the 30 home ballparks — many of which are located in COVID-19 hot spots.

The Cubs got word late Wednesday that none of the players they held out of practice had tested positive. But it’s at least the fourth time in six rounds of testing that results have been delayed or inconclusive enough to force the Cubs to reschedule workouts or hold out players and staff — and came two days after manager David Ross was among the group to miss workouts.

“There’s definitely a level of fire drill some mornings,” Ross said.

And this is where the teams have their work cut out, regardless of how strong their numbers remain when the season starts.

“This will present a problem if it happens within the season, and we’ll have to adjust,” Ross said. “But I think they’re working through that so we don’t have these problems when the season starts. … This is all new.”

But it’s also not likely to go away anytime soon, and almost certainly not by next week's openers — at least not as dramatically as players and other team officials would like to see.

MLB is using labs in Utah and New Jersey to turn around thousands of coronavirus tests every other day, which is subject to occasional issues involving a stressed national shipping industry when it comes to getting the samples to the labs and occasional batches that require quick retests because of inclusive results — or in some cases a positive result within a given batch.

RELATED: What the Cubs' Summer Camp testing delays mean for the regular season

The vast majority of delayed and retested samples produce negative results — as in the case of the Cubs’ half dozen on Wednesday. And MLB’s positive rate overall is about 1 percent.

Based on conversations with baseball people, not every team is approaching its “pending” cases with the same level of “abundance of caution” as the Cubs seem to be taking. Other teams are using case-by-case approaches or waiting until specifically positive results (or symptoms/risk behavior) to restrict activities.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Cubs remain the only team in the league without a known positive test among its players and coaching staff since intake testing began more than two weeks ago.

But what happens when the season starts, and a day like Monday or Wednesday comes up again — whether for the Cubs or an opponent?

“If we’re on a getaway day and Jon Lester’s our starter and has a pending test, it’s going to be hard for us to scramble,” Rizzo said. “I’m sure they’re working on it right now already to make sure that on Opening Day everything’s running as smooth as possible.”

But MLB does not appear to be in position to increase its testing capacity or delivery speed within the next week — especially when much of the country is experiencing surges in cases of COVID-19, positive rates and testing shortages.

One potential mitigating factor might be the fact that 48 of the Cubs’ 60 games (80 percent) are night games and two more are late-afternoon games. In theory, night games Monday and Wednesday of this week would have meant enough time in both cases to clear the “pending” results in time for the players in question to have played.

It may be small consolation to some.

“We didn’t sign up for these bad protocols as far as testing,” said Rizzo, whose Opening Day might already be in doubt as he battles a back issue. “The biggest thing for us is the safety.”

Neither he nor Ross are pointing fingers at MLB or the labs. They, along with other players and team officials, keep saying they expect the testing process to get even better.

But there may not be any specific reason to believe it will. And you can bank on roster rules staying where they are (nobody’s adding the kind of daily flexibility that would be certain to be abused — and would add to payroll costs).

So keep an eye on Mike Trout and Yu Darvish — and Sean Doolittle and Ryan Braun and everybody else who remains on edge about the risk this pandemic season poses?

“Listen, we are in a pandemic. We are all at risk,” Rizzo said. “We all want to play baseball because that’s what we love to do, and we have an opportunity to bring joy to a lot of people that are home, through these tough times.

“But we are all human. If guys start testing positive left and right and this gets out of control, I’m sure you’ll see some guys opt out.”