Cubs

Cubs: Joe Maddon doesn't see pitchers targeting Anthony Rizzo

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Cubs: Joe Maddon doesn't see pitchers targeting Anthony Rizzo

PITTSBURGH — A 96-mph fastball drilling Anthony Rizzo in the wrong spot could become a nightmare scenario for a Cubs team with ambitious goals this season.

But manager Joe Maddon doesn’t think opposing pitchers are headhunting and targeting the All-Star first baseman. Rizzo has been hit by six pitches already this month, setting the franchise record for April. So far, the Cubs have kept the peace.

“I’m not (seeing them) intentionally trying to hit (Rizzo),” Maddon said before Wednesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “I’m not seeing that vitriolic moment where the guy’s just going to smoke somebody. I’m sure it’s going to happen. But I don’t think I’ve seen it yet.”

Rizzo is only the second player in the last 100 seasons to get hit at least six times within a team’s first 13 games, according to ESPN Stats & Info. (Shin-Soo Choo was hit seven times during his first 13 games with the Cincinnati Reds in 2013.)

[MORE CUBS: How Scott Boras would change Kris Bryant's service-time case]

Within the last 102 seasons starting in 1914, only one Cub has been hit more than six times in a single calendar month (Marlon Byrd with seven in July 2010).

“I don’t worry (about it),” Maddon said. “You always have a pretty good sense about when something’s intentional or not. In our game, if we want to pitch inside also, we’re going to hit some guys on occasion.

“We smoked (Andrew) McCutchen (on Tuesday night) and nobody said anything about that. We weren’t trying to hit him. But we hit him. So I think you have to try to evaluate intent before you want to reciprocate.”

Rizzo — who began the day hitting .302 with a .475 on-base percentage — crowds the plate and usually shrugs it off: “It’s going to happen. I don’t mind it. It’s part of the game.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get an Anthony Rizzo jersey right here]

Only five players in the majors got hit more times than Rizzo (15) last season.

“That’s who he is,” Maddon said. “Sometimes it’s the style of the hitter more than it is the pitcher.”

Sometimes it’s a cruel game. Mike Olt’s on the 60-day disabled list with a hairline fracture in his right wrist after one of these freak accidents. The Cubs don’t want to think about their lineup without Rizzo’s left-handed power or what sort of hole that would leave at first base.

“He’s not going to give any quarter right there,” Maddon said. “Just maybe wear a pad. Just get the Barry Bonds autographed elbow pad, something like that.

“I guess Walmart’s selling them right now very inexpensively. That would be something I would encourage him to wear.”

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.