Cubs

Cubs monitoring Addison Russell's hamstring issues

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Cubs monitoring Addison Russell's hamstring issues

MESA, Ariz. - Will Addison Russell be able to shake his hamstring issues?

The 22-year-old shortstop has been plagued by hamstring injuries in his brief career, including a right hamstring tear in 2014 and then another injury that kept him out of the National League Championship Series last fall.

Russell hurt his left hamstring in Game 3 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals and his absence in the NLCS was one of the more underrated aspects working against the Cubs as they were swept in four games by the New York Mets.

Russell admitted it was difficult to have to sit on the sidelines and watch.

"You're grinding with these guys every single day and then you're presented a rare opportunity being able to hopefully go to the World Series. And then it ends up being cut short by an injury," Russell said.

"This year, definitely taking more precaution to make sure my body's ready for a long season."

[RELATED - No question: Addison Russell knows he belongs now with Cubs]

Russell showed up to camp in great shape, drawing rave reviews from manager Joe Maddon for his conditioning.

Over the winter, Russell worked out at the Andrews Institute in Northwest Florida, specifically working on strengthening and training his legs and back muscles in an effort to avoid injuries.

"I'm pretty confident in my hamstring this year," Russell said. "I've been working out really, really hard and I'll hopefully be able to swipe more bags this year."

Maddon is thinking along those same lines, talking last week about Russell's physical shape and how the second-year shortstop is quicker laterally, which will help in the field and on the basepaths.

But are the Cubs really going to want to risk Russell's health stealing bases when he has a history of hamstring issues?

The Cubs traded away Starlin Castro in the offseason, so the Cubs don't have as many backup options now. In the case of another Russell injury, Javy Baez would probably have to move from his super-utility role or else that burden would fall on 33-year-old light-hitting Munenori Kawasaki (.599 career MLB OPS) or 34-year-old Ben Zobrist who hasn't played shortstop since 2014.

However, that's all hypothetical and obviously the Cubs are hoping it never gets to that point.

The Cubs are working with Russell to correct his running mechanics, similar to what they did with Jorge Soler - who also has been hampered by soft-tissue injuries.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

"We watch it closely," Maddon said. "You gotta monitor him. ... Watch for any little signs and give him some rest when it's necessary. It's communicative. You gotta talk to the guy, listen to your trainers. If there's any kind of inclination, just back it off and give him a day.

"People will say, 'Oh he's only 22, he doesn't need a rest.' I'm so over that discussion. It's not true. It's 162 games, there's very little rest, you're on planes all the time, you're playing at different hours. There's all kinds of different items that are involved.

"These guys, they need rest, too, if you want them to play well at the end of the season. It was unfortunate what happened at the end of last season [with Russell], but we'll do everything we possibly can to monitor it."

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: