Cubs

Cubs bullpen in flux with Pedro Strop down and Hector Rondon sidelined

Cubs bullpen in flux with Pedro Strop down and Hector Rondon sidelined

The Cubs already had a dominant closer when they made a blockbuster trade with the New York Yankees in late July. But given Hector Rondon’s Tommy John history — and the unknown severity of Pedro Strop’s injury — Aroldis Chapman might become more of a necessity than a luxury item.

Chapman unleashed his 100-mph heat on Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, blowing away the Los Angeles Angels in the ninth inning with three straight strikeouts to end a 3-1 victory that might have come at a price.

Strop is now scheduled to get an MRI on his left knee on Thursday morning, and it didn’t look good in the eighth inning as he hobbled off the field, supported by a teammate and an athletic trainer. Strop slid awkwardly and felt something while trying to field the soft groundball Yunel Escobar bounced up the third-base line.

That visual creates even more uncertainty as Rondon deals with what the Cubs are calling a sore triceps. Rondon — who hasn’t pitched in a game since Aug. 2 — played catch as part of his pregame routine but manager Joe Maddon still doesn’t know exactly when his right-handed reliever will be available.

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“There’s nothing negative,” Maddon said. “He’s trending in the right direction, not the wrong direction, so that’s where my focus is right now.”

Carl Edwards Jr. bailed the Cubs out of that eighth-inning jam, striking out Mike Trout and getting groundballs against Albert Pujols and Andrelton Simmons, again showing he’s ready for prime time, especially if Rondon (18 saves, 1.70 ERA) and Strop (21 holds, 2.89 ERA) become question marks in front of Chapman.

“It would change the entire complexion of the group,” Maddon said. “It would make ‘Smitty’ (Joe Smith) more pertinent. I’m not going to beat up C.J., for sure, I know that much. Whatever’s wrong with Stropy, he’s probably not pitching tomorrow, I know that also. So, yeah, we’re going to have to look at different folks.”

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: