Cubs

Cubs move Kris Bryant to center field after Dexter Fowler's injury

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Cubs move Kris Bryant to center field after Dexter Fowler's injury

PITTSBURGH — Now playing center field ... Kris Bryant?

At 6-foot-5, Bryant doesn’t exactly look the part. The Cubs also believe he has a strong arm and enough athleticism to be able to stick at third base, where his monster offensive projections would create so much value.

The thinking is you keep him there for as long as you can. But Dexter Fowler’s injury and some late-game maneuvering forced the Cubs to tap into Bryant’s versatility during Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bryant had been exposed to center field at the University of San Diego, where he developed into the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

But could you handle it for an extended run?

“Yeah, why not?” Bryant said. “I probably played there five games in college. I actually like center a lot better than the other two, just because you don’t have to deal with the hooks of a righty smashing one down the left-field line or a lefty smashing one down the right-field line.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get a Kris Bryant jersey right here]

On a night where snow swept through PNC Park, the Cubs played it safe with Fowler, who left the game with right groin tightness. Fowler didn’t know if he would be able to play on Thursday, but he also didn’t think it would be a serious lingering issue.

“It’s more a precaution than anything on a cold day,” Fowler said. “We’ll see how it feels when I wake up in the morning.”

Fowler led off the game with a bunt single and immediately felt something in the first inning. Fowler made the turn when the throw sailed wide of Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez. Fowler then had to scramble back to the base when the ball didn’t bounce far enough to allow him to take second. The tightness didn’t stop Fowler from stealing the base moments later.

But the Cubs decided to have Chris Denorfia pinch-hit for Fowler in the third inning. Bench coach Dave Martinez later asked Bryant where he felt comfortable in the outfield. Bryant took over center in the eighth inning, and of course the first batter (Neil Walker) hit it right to him.

Nothing seems to faze Bryant, who handled this with the same attitude that’s helped him deal with all the great expectations and nonstop attention that comes with his mega-prospect status.

“It was cool out there — center field’s fun,” Bryant said. “If you’re kind of getting used to the outfield, it’s a good spot to get some flyballs in, just to read it off the bat.”

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.