Cubs

Arms race: Cubs send message in sweeping Mets

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Arms race: Cubs send message in sweeping Mets

Cubs manager Joe Maddon coughed twice before beginning his postgame news conference inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon.    

The fog machine in the clubhouse got to Maddon, who needed to clear his throat after celebrating Thursday’s 6-5 comeback victory over the New York Mets, finishing a four-game sweep of the National League East leaders.

“I’m just going to have to put my mask on before I walk through it,” Maddon said, sniffling after his 800th career win. “God, every night, I’ll take it. I’m not complaining.”

That would be a classic jump-the-shark moment: Maddon doing a “Breaking Bad” dress-up trip for a rebuilding job that should have required hazmat suits.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs (19-15) and Anthony Rizzo Productions now have Chauvet DJ lighting equipment hanging from the clubhouse ceiling and a completely different vibe from the teams that finished in fifth place for five years in a row.  

“No one gives up,” Rizzo said. “Guys come to work every day and compete. We’re young. We have fun. And we have great veteran leadership.”

Who knows how long this dance party will last? On Thursday afternoon, Rizzo got hit for the 10th and 11th times this season, and the Cubs can’t afford one of those fastballs drilling their All-Star first baseman in the wrong spot. Catcher David Ross left the game with abdominal tightness. And Travis Wood (5.59 ERA) got knocked out in the fifth inning, leading to more questions about the back of the rotation.  

But as Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson said: “The potential is definitely there.”

The Cubs erased 3-0 and 5-1 deficits, getting a jumpstart from Dexter Fowler’s leadoff home run in the fourth inning and using their deep lineup to wear out the Mets (20-15).

[MORE: Russell getting comfortable playing off shortstop]

A team that went 0-79 when trailing heading into the ninth inning last season has already won six games in its last at-bat this season, going 10-6 so far in one-run games.

“Very businesslike,” Maddon said, describing the mood in the dugout. “We get down, nobody’s panicking. Nobody’s saying we can’t do this. I think there was a great believability within the group that we could do it.”

The Mets (20-15) left Wrigleyville barely holding onto first place, their lead over the Washington Nationals shrinking to just one game. This series had been framed as another measuring stick for the Cubs, New York’s young power pitchers against Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell.

[ALSO: Cubs still see Soler as a monster in the making]

“It’s really cool,” said Bryant, who delivered a game-tying RBI single in the fifth inning and has driven in 10 runs in the last 10 games. “The Mets have a really good system. I’ve been following along with them, playing against them, and we got some pretty good young guys here. We just hope that we can continue that trend and do something in this game.”

The Cubs didn’t back down from Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Jon Niese. They didn’t commit an error during this four-game series. A beat-up bullpen immediately looked sharper with Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel pitching deep into games, not giving up a run in 9.2 innings combined.    

It’s only a snapshot, but for all the hype about the arms race between the Cubs and Mets, this looked more like two teams heading in opposite directions than two teams on the rise.     

“We respect everybody, but we should not revere anyone,” Maddon said. “I really dig our staff. I like our personnel a lot. I think the Mets have a wonderful thing going on, absolutely. But there’s got to be respect and not reverence.” 

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.