Cubs

Creative tension fuels Joe Maddon’s Cubs

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Creative tension fuels Joe Maddon’s Cubs

The Cubs can feel the creative tension when Joe Maddon manages like it’s already October, following his killer instinct and not worrying about the egos or individual agendas.  

“Of course,” Maddon said. “Every good team I’ve ever been around, you’re going to have that. You can’t keep everybody happy every moment of every day. And that’s OK.”

The Cubs woke up on Thursday with the fourth-best record in the majors. Maddon’s impact – on a team that Baseball Prospectus gave an 87.4 percent chance of making the playoffs – is hard to measure but impossible to ignore.   

Maddon pulling Jason Hammel after only 65 pitches on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field became the latest flashpoint. Maddon didn’t feel the need to meet with Hammel after a 3-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that was cemented by Miguel Montero’s walk-off homer in the 10th inning.

“You just have to do what you think is right,” Maddon said. “And then you move on. And then, eventually, everybody probably comes to terms with the decision.

“That’s just the way it is. That’s how it plays sometimes. Again, I do think it’s good for the group – a little bit of edge.”

[MORE: Maddon not worried about 'being nice' with quick hook on Hammel]

It’s not just Hammel getting the quick hook and the mad-scientist manager creating matchups out of the bullpen. 

It’s benching Starlin Castro – a three-time All-Star shortstop – in the middle of a pennant race. It’s bumping Travis Wood – an All-Star in 2013 – from the rotation and turning the lefty into an important piece of the bullpen puzzle. 

It’s trying to keep Montero happy when he’s been part of two different three-catcher rotations. It’s refusing to name a closer and having seven different relievers notch saves this season. 

“It’s part of the job,” Maddon said. “You have to do what you think is right on a nightly basis. You can’t worry about hurting somebody’s feelings a little bit.”

It’s easier to make difficult decisions when you have the security of a five-year, $25 million contract and the instant credibility that comes from a wildly successful run with the Tampa Bay Rays (five 90-win seasons between 2008 and 2013).  

Hammel pitched for the 2008 Rays team that shocked the baseball world and made it to the World Series, so he certainly understands Maddon’s unconventional style.

Maddon didn’t hesitate during last week’s huge series against the San Francisco Giants, yanking Hammel after 76 pitches in the fifth inning of the first game of what turned out to be a four-game sweep of the defending World Series champs.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

On some level, Hammel (6-5, 3.10 ERA) might still be feeling the effects from the hamstring issues he experienced last month. Or it’s Maddon trying to create a smoke screen and find a positive spin.

“Earlier in the season, man, I would have left him out there for nine innings,” Maddon said. “He just hasn’t been as sharp with his command lately. But he will be. Coming off the injury has probably had a little bit of an impact on all of that overall. Physically, his stuff’s really good. He’s just not as sharp as he had been. 

“The other component that I think is really interesting is that he should be really fresh coming down the stretch (in terms of) the number of innings pitched, the number of pitches thrown. And that’s why I can see him really turning it on relatively soon.”

Maddon is an expert communicator at a time when managerial power has been diminished across the game, players are essentially individual corporations and social media amplifies everything.   

“I think you’re in an ‘era of sensitivity,’ regardless of the era,” Maddon said. “If I had done that to a pitcher in 1975, he’d still be upset.”

That guy might have punched you, a reporter said during Maddon media session. 

“Yeah, it might have been more physical,” Maddon said. “You got a prideful person out there playing. And, again, based on pitch count, it would indicate that you should be able to stay in the game. And I get that. But I was not concerned about pitch count. I was worried about winning the game.”

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.