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


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 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.