Cubs

Bring on October: Cubs ready to handle the playoff pressure

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Bring on October: Cubs ready to handle the playoff pressure

As the Cubs popped champagne bottles and crushed beer cans, Jason Motte looked at Kyle Schwarber and said: “This is way better than college!”

The mosh pits formed outside the home dugout after Saturday afternoon’s 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had already clinched their playoff spot before the game – thanks to the San Francisco Giants losing on Friday night on the West Coast – but there was no way this group would turn down the chance to party.

That scene summed up the unique chemistry within this team. There was Motte – a veteran reliever who closed out the 2011 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals and now on the disabled list with a shoulder injury – messing with Schwarber. The rookie catcher/outfielder played his last game for the Indiana Hoosiers in June 2014.

Are the Cubs ready to handle the pressure in October, the weight of expectations from a reenergized fan base and the blanket coverage from the national media?

“We’re about to find out,” catcher Miguel Montero said.

The Cubs won’t be tourists in October this time. Kris Bryant watched a playoff game last year inside the Boras Corp. suite behind home plate at Angel Stadium of Anaheim and (obviously) posted a photo on his personal Twitter account.

“I can only imagine what it would be like in Wrigley Field,” Bryant said. “We’ve turned it around pretty quick. We’ve got a lot of good players here. And I hope it’s like that for a long time.”

[RELATED: Belief in young players pays off for Cubs]

At that point, Schwarber hadn’t played a single game above the A-ball level. Addison Russell had 13 Triple-A at-bats total on his resume. Joe Maddon hadn’t yet opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. Jake Arrieta had a 4.48 career ERA in the big leagues.

The Cubs hadn’t made their big moves yet, hiring Maddon for his aura/confidence, signing Jon Lester and David Ross as a package deal for the rotation/clubhouse, and trading for Montero and Dexter Fowler to fill specific needs behind the plate, in center field and at the top of the order.

The Cubs embraced Lester’s “Play Stupid” message, Maddon’s groovy Zen philosophies and DJ Anthony Rizzo’s over-the-top clubhouse celebrations.

But don’t overlook the mental toughness it took to win 60 percent of their one-run games (32-21), go 12-5 in extra-inning games and survive in a division that should produce three 90-win teams.

“Playing like this all year has helped guys prepare for now,” said Lester, who won two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox and has a 2.57 ERA in 84 postseason innings. “(It’s) the mindset – how these guys prepare every single day. Every day’s the same to them. They prepare the same. They show up ready to play.

“When you’re prepared and you’re ready to play, I’ve always felt like that nervous energy is easier to control or deal with while you’re in the game, because you have something to fall back on (when) the game speeds up a little bit.”

[WATCH: Maddon 'eager' to see Wrigley's playoff atmosphere]

All the attention and glowing stories didn’t make the young Cubs soft, either. Ross is 38 years old now after coming up with the Los Angeles Dodgers, going to the playoffs with the Atlanta Braves and winning a World Series with the 2013 Red Sox. He hadn’t seen anything like the wall-to-wall coverage of Bryant during spring training.

“The environment, yeah, it’s different (in the playoffs),” Ross said. “But we’ve been playing a lot of meaningful games where our backs have been against the wall and a lot of people doubted us down the stretch.

“I don’t think it’s something that changes that much. It’s a more exciting environment and mistakes will hurt you. But this team came up with a lot of hype and a lot of people going: ‘These guys are supposed to do this, that and the other.’ They’ve lived up to everything that you could possibly imagine.

“(People) talk about how young guys these guys are. Yeah, age-wise, but mentally these guys are maybe even a little more polished than I am.”

Ross – an invaluable veteran presence Lester has called “The Grey Wolf” – laughed at his own line.

“I’m not worried about the postseason,” Ross said. “We’re going to take each day as it comes and play as hard as we can. That’s the one thing I love about this group. They’re not looking ahead. They’re not looking behind. They’re focusing on the day.”

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.

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

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USA TODAY

Podcast: In light of recent hitting coach turmoil, who’s to blame for Cubs offensive struggles?

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Luke Stuckmeyer and Tony Andracki discuss the comments Chili Davis made after being fired as Cubs hitting coach, ask if the Cubs struggles on offense were Davis' fault or the players and what Anthony Iapoce will be walking into as he tries to gets the team back on track a the plate.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here, or in the embedded player below: