With Addison Russell out for NLCS, Cubs will rely on Javier Baez


With Addison Russell out for NLCS, Cubs will rely on Javier Baez

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.

[MORE: NLCS Preview: Who has the advantage?]

“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.

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“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. 

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

Cubs reportedly ‘exceptionally impressed’ by Joe Espada in managerial search

As the Cubs peruse over their list of managerial candidates, one name reportedly made a strong impression following his interview with the team.

According to NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan, Astros bench coach Joe Espada left the Cubs front office “exceptionally impressed” following his interview on Monday.

Espada, 44, has spent the last two seasons as Astros bench coach following three seasons as Yankees third base coach. He is one of MLB’s more sought after managerial candidates this winter and one of three known external candidates for the Cubs’ opening, along with Joe Girardi and Gabe Kapler.

Former Cubs catcher and current front office assistant David Ross has been the presumed front runner for the Cubs' opening. But based on Kaplan’s report, Espada clearly has given Epstein and Co. something to think about, which makes sense, considering Espada is coming from an innovative Astros organization.

Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference that there’s no timeline for the Cubs’ managerial search. However, MLB prefers teams to not make big announcements during the World Series, which kicks off on Oct. 22. Thus, the Cubs may not make an announcement for little while longer, though this is purely speculation.

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The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs


The curious case of Brad Wieck and his unique opportunity with the Cubs

If anybody thought the Cubs' 2019 season was a roller coaster, it was nothing compared to what Brad Wieck has gone through this year.

Wieck — the 6-foot-9 left-handed reliever — went from a cancer diagnosis to a Padres cast-off and wound up finishing the year carving through the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth inning of a must-win game in late-September for the Cubs.

Wieck began 2019 with a testicular cancer diagnosis in January and underwent surgery shortly after. That left him playing catch-up all spring training, unable to lift, run or throw off a mound for a month after the surgery. He only ended up facing live hitters twice before the regular season started and was never able to recover with the Padres, putting up a 5.71 ERA in 34.2 MLB innings. 

Then the Cubs came calling.

While the rest of Cubdom was understandably occupied on Trade Deadline Day celebrating the Nick Castellanos move, Theo Epstein's front office made a smaller move with the San Diego Padres. And Wieck wasn't even the central focus of that trade, as more of the emphasis was on the departure of Carl Edwards Jr. — a polarizing figure in the Cubs bullpen the last few seasons, including throughout the 2016 World Series run.

Yet Epstein's front office didn't treat Wieck like a throw-in. From Day 1 with the organization, the Cubs handled the southpaw more like a first-round draft pick.

Right after the trade, Wieck was immediately assigned to Triple-A Iowa, where he made a pair of appearances against the Tacoma Rainiers. From there, he was invited to Chicago to meet with the Cubs front office and throw a bullpen off the Wrigley Field mound.

"So I got here and they had a whole presentation of what my current curveball looked like and what they would like the shape of it to look like and so we just started messing around with grip," Wieck said. "I went to a spike curveball grip and we got in the lab and we started throwing it more and we came up with consistent break of what we thought was gonna be a better break than the curveball that I had.

"Just trial and error, honestly. We just looked at Rapsodo stuff and saw what spin efficiency is doing and spin rate and trying to get my curveball spin to replicate the exact opposite of my fastball. That's what our goal was."

That led to a trip to the "Pitch Lab" in Arizona where Wieck worked with Josh Zeid, the Cubs' pitching analyst, to continue to mess around with the new curveball grip and add a new, consistent weapon to his arsenal. 

If the term "spike curveball" sounds familiar, it should. It's become the unofficial pitch of the Cubs (you know, if organizations defined themselves by just one pitch). Rowan Wick — Wieck's former roommate in the Padres system — broke out as a trusted big-league reliever in large part because of the emergence of his spike curve. Craig Kimbrel throws one and also taught the pitch to Yu Darvish, who added it to the plethora of options already at his disposal. 

Wieck's time in Arizona was about getting comfortable with the new pitch and not worrying about facing hitters or pitching in a game. After a couple weeks in the desert, the Cubs threw him back out on the mound in Iowa, where he made four appearances before getting the call to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September. 

Right off the bat, we got a look at that spike curve and there is no doubt it can play at Wrigley Field, especially when the shadows roll in:

Just like that, a new weapon was born and Wieck developed more confidence in that reshaped curveball.

"I like that they're forcing me to throw it more because I've been a fastball-heavy pitcher my whole life," Wieck said. "I trust my fastball with my life. To have a catcher get back there and make you throw it, that's really good."

The Cubs' confidence in Wieck also grew as the month went on. He emerged alongside his buddy Wick as vital pieces of the late-season bullpen while Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler dealt with injuries. It got to the point where Joe Maddon kept Wieck in to face the Cardinals' big boppers (Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna — both right-handed hitters) with a 1-run lead in the eighth inning on that final homestand. We all know how that game ended (Kimbrel served up homers on back-to-back pitches for another gut-wrenching Cubs loss), but Wieck did his job and proved he's far more than just a lefty specialist.

This fall was the first time Wieck had been a part of a playoff push and that outing against the Cardinals was only the 46th MLB appearance of his young career. Moving into 2020, the 28-year-old southpaw looks to be one of only a few arms penciled into the Cubs bullpen. 

The Cubs had their eyes on Wieck for a while before they were able to trade for him and they don't plan on rolling out a big presentation for each acquisition or ask every new arm to start throwing a brand new pitch or completely remake one of their existing pitches. This was a unique situation, but it's one that already paid dividends in a short period of time and could help set up the bullpen for the future. 

It's also another indicator that the "Pitch Lab" can work, as Wieck joins Wick and Kyle Ryan as products of the Cubs' new model they hope to fine-tune and grow. Epstein will hire a director of pitching for the organization this winter and the Cubs are hoping to change the narrative surrounding their shocking lack of pitching development under this front office. 

In Wieck's case, it was a group effort from the Cubs — the front office, research and development department, big-league coaching staff (led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy), the pitching analytics unit based in Arizona and minor league pitching coordinator Brendan Sagara all teamed up to make it happen for the tall lefty in only a month's time.

It's a model the organization will attempt to duplicate moving forward, beginning this winter.