The trade rumors started from the moment the Cubs acquired Addison Russell, a guessing game of what happens next with Javier Baez and Starlin Castro after last year’s Fourth of July blockbuster.
The New York Mets looked like a match on paper with their stable of young power pitchers. Now four wins away from the World Series, the Cubs will use that shortstop surplus to fill what might have been a huge hole in their middle infield.
Manager Joe Maddon definitively ruled Russell out of the National League Championship Series, a strained left hamstring making Baez and Castro the new double-play combination starting with Saturday’s Game 1 against the Mets at Citi Field.
“Addie right now will not participate in this next round,” Maddon said Thursday at Wrigley Field. “We’re not going to utilize him. We’ll continue to work on him.
“Hopefully, if everything plays properly, and we have another opportunity to play another round, he might be available at that time. But for sure not this one.”
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Maddon didn’t know who would take Russell’s roster spot or if the Cubs would prefer to add another arm to the pitching staff for a seven-game series. But the team has no plans to move Castro – a three-time All-Star shortstop – off second base and back to his old position.
“Baez is our other shortstop,” Maddon said. “We set it up that way.”
Russell leapfrogged Baez this year and stabilized the team’s up-the-middle defense in early August when he moved from second base to shortstop. But the Cubs still have the luxury of swapping one first-round talent out for another.
Russell had been coming off a strained right hamstring when the Cubs made him the centerpiece to the Jeff Samardzija trade with the Oakland A’s. Russell said this issue – which became too much when he hustled for a triple during Monday’s Game 3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals – didn’t feel nearly as serious as that injury.
“The big thing was to ameliorate his mind in a sense that he knows what’s happening next,” Maddon said. “He’s not going to necessarily push it right now. Let’s go on a more normal pace with the training staff, not test it to the point that you injure it again by trying to be too aggressive.
“This permits us to (make) it more of a planned situation regarding his rehab. And then we’ll work it out from there. He’s such a mature kid, man. The conversation was easy. He understood everything. He got it. I think he was a little bit relieved in a sense that he did not have to push it right now.”
Maddon is a big fan of Russell, who put up 13 homers, 29 doubles and 54 RBI during his rookie season. But the manager has also raved about Baez and his ability to impact games with his speed, defense and instincts.
Baez waited for a September call-up after a difficult season from a personal and professional standpoint. But he helped end the division series, sending the Cardinals home for the winter with a huge swing in Game 4.
“Addison has played enough here this year to know that he belongs here and he can do this,” Maddon said. “I want to believe that Javy’s arriving at that same point. To hit a three-run homer in a playoff game like that against one of the best pitchers in the National League should boost your confidence.
“The big thing primarily is the consistency on defense. We have to catch the ball. I talked about that the whole time – pitching it and catching it is really important to us. And I know he can do that.
“But it’s a mental thing. It’s a confidence issue. And when you’re able to get a hit like that under those circumstances, I want to believe it does help.”
The Cubs kept saying you can never have too many shortstops – while also exploring deals that would have involved Baez or Castro – and they will need both to win their first pennant since 1945.