Cubs

Cubs admit Jon Lester has a problem ... now what?

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Cubs admit Jon Lester has a problem ... now what?

LOS ANGELES — The Jon-Lester-has-the-yips story really gained momentum on “Sunday Night Baseball,” ESPN setting the agenda for Cubs-Cardinals during the 2015 season opener.

Almost five months later — and back in the national showcase as a legitimate playoff contender — the Cubs still don’t have any easy answers or a long-term fix.

David Ross still looks like an obvious part of any solution, and the personal catcher’s absence was noted during Saturday’s 5-2 loss at Dodger Stadium. With Ross on the family medical emergency list, the Dodgers stole four bases off Lester and Miguel Montero, who also got called for catcher’s interference.

Lester and Ross have worked together so long that they almost have their own language. Montero, a two-time All-Star, admitted that “I was a little bit lost” with some of the signs. Manager Joe Maddon had to visit the mound during the fourth inning to get everyone on the same page and reinforce how certain messages would be relayed from the dugout. During his postgame media session, Maddon said it looked like Montero was rushing his throws. When a reporter mentioned that observation, Montero gave an honest answer.

“I’ve got to rush,” Montero said. “There’s not much I can do. I try to do my best. When you know they’re going to go and you still have to make a perfect throw to maybe throw the guy out, as a catcher, you just try to do your best. And just try to be as quick as possible. There’s not much you can do.”

[MORE CUBS: Jon Lester sees losing streak as part of the roller coaster]

Ross can’t play forever. He is 38 years old and has one more season left on his contract (at $2.5 million for 2016). His outgoing personality and leadership skills make him look like a future manager.

If the Cubs have any plans to get Lester more comfortable throwing to someone else — or find another way to get Montero’s bat in a playoff game — it sounds like it will probably have to wait.

“You know me,” Maddon said, “I’m just more concerned about short-term right now.

“Long-term, you can talk about spring trainings and conversations and different work that you can do to hopefully get the issue resolved over the next year or so.

“For right now, let’s get David back. Let’s get David back there with him and just play it from there. That’s my only concern right now. Honestly, I haven’t even considered beyond that.”

[MORE CUBS: Did Cubs ever really have a chance to get Chase Utley?]

Lester’s issues throwing over to first base and controlling the running game didn’t stop him from earning two World Series rings with the Red Sox and getting that six-year, $155 million contract after an intense bidding war.

Lester has been a very good pitcher in the first season of that megadeal, going 8-10 with a 3.59 ERA while getting little run support, giving this rebuilding project some credibility and setting a professional tone inside the clubhouse.

“I pretty much followed his plan, which I did agree (with) on most of the hitters,” Montero said. “Obviously, we probably haven’t worked enough together to be 100-percent confident in what I call, which is OK. It’s understandable. For the most part, we worked pretty (well together). I think we were on the same page, for the most part.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs will push Javier Baez in first wave of September call-ups]

It’s not like this happened overnight. Maddon saw it up close while managing the Rays in the American League East.

“We were aware of all of that,” Maddon said. “You still got to hit the guy. There’s different nuances of the whole thing that even if a guy gets on, even if you were to steal, it just depends on the number of outs, who’s hitting, the different things you can do to prevent a run, plus Jonny’s abilities.

“Like Dwight Gooden, when he pitched for the Mets, it was stolen base after stolen base against the guy. But let’s go ahead and drive them in. That’s another issue. So I know it’s out there, obviously, prominently. To this point, I thought we’d done a pretty good job of dealing with it.

“We’ll get David back here. We’ll get it all straightened out.”

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.