Cubs

Cubs: Addison Russell gaining confidence as he gets back to playing his game

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Cubs: Addison Russell gaining confidence as he gets back to playing his game

This isn't a video game anymore.

That 94 mph fastball from Clayton Kershaw is as real as it gets for Addison Russell.

The day after Kris Bryant was talking about facing pitchers who used to be on his Fantasy Baseball teams, the other high-profile Cubs rookie was discussing how he used to play with Kershaw and Zack Greinke on PlayStation in high school (which was only three years ago for Russell).

Now, he's facing them in person on back-to-back nights.

"It's pretty cool," Russell said. "Everyone knows [Kershaw] is a great pitcher. It's just kinda surreal being able to face him."

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Regardless of who he's facing nowadays, Russell is looking like a big-leaguer. He no longer appears to be the wide-eyed rookie just happy to be here.

More than anything, he's been patient at the plate, with eight of his 16 walks coming in June, a month in which he has posted a .366 on-base percentage entering play Tuesday.

In fact, in his last 23 games dating back to May 26, Russell is hitting .286 with a .368 OBP and .796 OPS.

"I think there's some development in there," Russell said of the consistency he's found at the plate. "It's also some of my approach. I'm seeing a lot more pitches, I'm taking my walks and it's working out."

Russell credits that approach with the results that are showing on the stat sheet. Part of the reason he found his name among the Top 5 prospects in the game is his advanced approach at such a young age.

"I'm just getting back to my approach," he said. "When I first came up here, it was just, 'I gotta get a hit. I gotta get a hit.' But now, I'm taking my time.

"I'm having a lot of patience at the plate and I'm letting my approach take care of itself."

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Joe Maddon has noticed. With the Cubs' usual leadoff man Dexter Fowler currently sidelined with a minor ankle injury, the question was posed to Maddon about the possibility of having Russell lead off for a game or two, instead of hitting in his typical No. 9 spot.

"I think Addison's doing really, really well where he's hitting right now," Maddon said. "... Addison's development is so important to me and to us. I'm not saying that he can't [lead off] - I'm not saying that at all. But I don't know what it would do to his comfort zone.

"Right now, his on-base percentage is getting to a really respectable area as his batting average continues to climb. You've seen him work better at-bats. He's taken those borderline pitches and not chasing as much.

"I just like what he's doing. I don't want to mess with him or his development."

Russell got another great moment for his development Tuesday night when he came up to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the 10th inning. Russell was up against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen - one of the nastiest relievers in the game - and fouled off pitch after pitch before grounding a ball toward first base on the eighth pitch. Adrian Gonzalez bobbled the ball at first, so the Dodgers were only able to get one out (the force at home), setting the table for Chris Denorfia's walk-off one batter later.

After the game, Maddon made a special point to discuss Russell's at-bat in the 10th and the type of effect it can have on the rookie in the future.

"I loved Addison's at-bat," Maddon said. "I thought it was a great learning experience for Addison."

At 21, Russell is one of the youngest players in all of baseball. Amid a sort of rookie awakening around the game, Russell has said he does not compare himself to fellow first-year players and just tries to go out and play his game.

He plays aggressive, making leaping and diving catches all over the outfield grass, manning the second base position like a free safety.

Russell - a natural shortstop - also says he's actually more comfortable at second base now, but took some ground balls at shortstop before Tuesday's game just to stay fresh over there, too.

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He insists the position change wasn't a factor for his initial offensive struggles.

"I kinda like to keep those two things separate," Russell said. "If I struggle at the plate, I can always rely on mmy defense. It's whenever both things aren't going your way, which is what happened to me pretty early on.

"You just have to get back to the fact that you're here for a reason. You've worked your butt off so far. Just believe in yourself.

"That's the biggest thing - just trusting myself and my ability."

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

What should Brandon Morrow's role be in Cubs 2019 bullpen?

Since the Cubs' early exit from the postseason, many have turned their attention to the 2019 roster and wonder if Brandon Morrow will be the team's closer next year.

However, the question isn't WILL Morrow be the closer, but rather — SHOULD he be counted on as the main ninth-inning option?

Morrow didn't throw a single pitch for the Cubs after the All-Star Game, nursing a bone bruise in his forearm that did not heal in time to allow him to make a return down the stretch.

Of course, an injury isn't surprising given Morrow's lengthy history of arm issues. 

Consider: Even with a half-season spent on the DL, Morrow's 35 appearances in 2018 was his second-highest total since 2008 (though he also spent a ton of time as a starting pitcher from 2009-15).

Morrow is 34 now and has managed to throw just 211 innings in 126 games since the start of the 2013 season. 

Because of that, Theo Epstein isn't ready to anoint Morrow the Cubs' 2019 closer despite success in the role in his first year in Chicago (22-for-24 in save chances).

"[We're] very comfortable with Morrow as part of a deep and talented 'pen," Epstein said. "We have to recommit to him in a very structured role and stick with it to do our best to keep him healthy. Set some rules and adhere to them and build a 'pen around that. I'm comfortable."

Epstein is referencing the overuse the Cubs have pointed to for the origin of Morrow's bone bruise when he worked three straight games from May 31-June 2 during a stretch of four appearances in five days.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs were very cautious with Morrow early in the year, unleashing him for only three outings — and 2 innings — in the first two-plus weeks of the season, rarely using him even on back-to-back days.

During that late-May/early-June stretch, Morrow also three just 2 pitches in one outing (May 31) and was only called upon for the 14th inning June 2 when Maddon had already emptied the rest of the Cubs bullpen in a 7-1 extra-inning victory in New York.

The blame or origin of Morrow's bone bruise hardly matters now. All the Cubs can do at this moment is try to learn from it and carry those lessons into 2019. It sounds like they have, heading into Year 2 of a two-year, $21 million deal that also includes a team option for 2020.

"It's the type of injury you can fully recover from with rest," Epstein said. "that said, he has an injury history and we knew that going in. That was part of the calculation when we signed him and that's why it was the length it was and the amount of money it was, given his talent and everything else.

"We were riding pretty high with him for a few months and then we didn't have him for the second half of the season. And again, that's on me. We took an educated gamble on him there and on the 'pen overall, thinking that even if he did get hurt, we had enough talent to cover for it. And look, it was a really good year in the 'pen and he contributed to that greatly in the first half.

"They key is to keep him healthy as much as possible and especially target it for down the stretch and into what we hope will be a full month of October next year."

It's clear the Cubs will be even more cautious with Morrow in 2019, though he also should head into the new campaign with significantly more rest than he received last fall when he appeared in all seven games of the World Series out of the Dodgers bullpen.

Morrow has more than proven his value in this Cubs bullpen as a low-maintenance option when he's on the field who goes right after hitters and permits very few walks or home runs. 

But if the Cubs are going to keep him healthy for the most important time of the season in September and October, they'll need to once again pack the bullpen with at least 7 other arms besides Morrow, affording Maddon plenty of options.

When he is healthy, Morrow will probably get a ton of the closing opportunities, but the world has also seen what Pedro Strop can do in that role and the Cubs will likely add another arm or two this winter for high-leverage situations.