Cubs

Cubs see their belief in Addison Russell pay off against Cardinals

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Cubs see their belief in Addison Russell pay off against Cardinals

Even if the Cubs wanted to send Addison Russell back to Triple-A Iowa, they probably don’t have a good alternative at second base.

“Not right now, I don’t think,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But honestly I’m more than fine with Addison. I think he’s done great.”

This is the challenge of winning now — while still developing for later — when the Cubs are 46-37 after Tuesday’s doubleheader sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Russell came through with the clutch hit in Game 2 and admitted after a 5-3 victory that the confidence boost “means the world right now, especially against a team like that.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs flip the script on Cardinals, sweep doubleheader]

This looked like the breaking point that usually happens to the Cubs against the Cardinals (54-30). Russell reached out in the seventh inning and knocked a ball up the first-base line that stayed fair for a game-tying RBI single.

“From my view, it looked like it went over the bag,” Russell said. “Off the bat, I thought it was foul, and then it had like a weird spin on it, and it just bounced over the bag.”

Frustrated Cardinals reliever Seth Maness got ejected. His replacement — Kevin Siegrist — fielded a routine grounder on the next play and threw the ball into left-center field, which helped the Cubs tack on two more runs.

The bottom line is the Cubs need Russell to produce.

Javier Baez can’t be the midseason answer at second base or shortstop when he’s sidelined with a fractured finger. Tommy La Stella hasn’t been the versatile infielder/valuable bench player the Cubs hoped for because a tricky oblique injury has limited him to only six at-bats all season.

[MORE CUBS: What we learned about the Cubs in the first half]

Gold Glove second baseman D.J. LeMahieu — a homegrown player the Theo Epstein administration overlooked and packaged in the Ian Stewart deal with the Colorado Rockies — just made his first National League All-Star team.

Gleyber Torres — the Venezuelan shortstop who showed up at No. 28 on Baseball America’s midseason prospect rankings — is only 18 years old and playing at Class-A South Bend.

So even if the Cubs somehow found a good deal for Starlin Castro and sold low on their All-Star shortstop, it’s not like this team is stocked with ready-made up-the-middle solutions.

“There’s a lot of talk about that, who’s going to move where,” Russell said. “I got dealt a pretty new hand with learning second base kind of on the fly. But I’ve grown to love the position. I’m confident at that position right now. And I’m just looking to get better."

[MORE CUBS: All-Star snub? Jake Arrieta proves his worth as Cubs beat Cardinals]

Maddon wants to protect his players and push Russell questions into a big-picture analysis of how pitching and defense now gets all the shiny new toys. Offense is being suffocated with information overload, hot zones, instant scouting reports and defensive shifts.

“We won’t quit on (our young players),” Maddon said. “We talk about Addison a lot. (It’s) not only a new position, but then to cope with major-league pitching at the same time the birth certificate says he just turned 21. Not easy. Really hard to do. And then where the pitching is at right now makes it even more difficult.”

Russell hasn’t homered since June 17 — and the Cleveland Indians designated the pitcher who gave it up (Shaun Marcum) for assignment the next day. Russell has one extra-base hit in his last 19 games, his average falling to .227.

“I think he’s on the verge,” Maddon said. “I really do. I see a lot freer swing. I see a looser swing. He’s (starting) to not chase as often. The physical swing is wonderful.

“I have no problems with his approach, his swing, the bat speed, all that stuff. There are some things we’re talking about to get him to do a little bit better, but it’s going to happen. This kid is going to be really good.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get an Addison Russell jersey right here]

No one doubts Russell’s natural talent, high ceiling or levelheaded demeanor. That’s why Epstein saw it as an offer he couldn’t refuse when Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane included his blue-chip prospect in last summer’s Jeff Samardzija deal. But we’ve all probably expected too much too soon from The Core.

“Sometimes we get a little spoiled when we get on a roll,” Epstein said. “I know I do. I start to evaluate us through the lens of what you want to see, instead of sometimes what you have. We have to recognize that we are young. It’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality.

“It’s kind of a delicate balancing act. You don’t want to use youth or inexperience as an excuse. (But) we have to constantly remember that a lot of these guys are 23 or 22 or 21. Even the veterans are 25. Not the most experienced (group) in the world.

“They’re gonna put themselves in slumps really quickly, and maybe have a longer time coming out of them, because this is the first time they’ve been through a lot of this stuff. The length of the season — in and of itself — is the first time they’ve been through something like that.

“It’s a testament to how mature they are — and how talented they are — that sometimes (we) can forget that.”

At a time when offense is down and the Cubs keep playing 1-0, 2-1 games, Maddon also mentioned how Russell grades out well with WAR (1.1), a metric that leans heavily on defense, figuring that a run prevented is as good as a run driven in.

Not the Cubs think it will be an either-or situation with Russell.

“The thing I loved is how he battled through that moment,” Maddon said. “He’s been struggling a lot. And he did not cave. He did not quit. And hopefully that’s going to really help buoy his spirits.”

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

Cubs still waiting for Willson Contreras' offense to take off, but they know it's coming

If every Major League Baseball player was thrown into a draft pool in a fantasy-type format, Willson Contreras may be the first catcher taken.

Joe Maddon and the Cubs certainly wouldn't take anybody else over "Willy."

The Cubs skipper said as much in late-May, placing Contreras' value above guys like Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez and Yadier Molina based on age, athleticism, arm, blocking, intelligence, energy and offensive prowess.
 
Contreras strikes out more, doesn't hit for as high of an average and doesn't yet have the leadership ability of Posey, but he's also 5 years younger than the Giants catcher. Molina is possibly destined for the Hall of Fame, but he's also 35 and the twilight of his career is emerging. Sanchez is a better hitter with more power currently than Contreras, but a worse fielder.

Remember, Contreras has been in the big leagues for barely 2 years total — the anniversary of his first at-bat came earlier this week:

All that being said, the Cubs are still waiting for Contreras to display that type of complete player in 2018.

He's thrown out 11-of-32 would-be basestealers and the Cubs love the way he's improved behind the plate at calling the game, blocking balls in the dirt and working with the pitcher. They still see some room for improvement with pitch-framing, but that's not suprising given he's only been catching full-time since 2013.

Offensively, Contreras woke up Saturday morning with a .262 batting average and .354 on-base percentage (which are both in line with his career .274/.356 line), but his slugging (.412) is way down compared to his career .472 mark.

He already has 14 doubles (career high in a season was 21 last year) and a career-best 4 triples, but also only 4 homers — 3 of which came in a 2-game stretch against the White Sox on May 11-12.

So where's the power?

"He's just not been hitting the ball as hard," Maddon said. "It's there, he's gonna be fine. Might be just getting a little bit long with his swing. I think that's what I'm seeing more than anything.

"But I have so much faith in him. It was more to the middle of last year that he really took off. That just might be his DNA — slower start, finish fast.

"Without getting hurt last year, I thought he was gonna get his 100 RBIs. So I'm not worried about him. It will come. He's always hit, he can hit, he's strong, he's healthy, he's well, so it's just a patience situation."

The hot streak Maddon is talking about from last season actually began on June 16 and extended to Aug. 9, the date Contreras pulled his hamstring and went to the disabled list for the next month.

In that 45-game span (40 starts) in the middle of 2017, Contreras hit .313/.381/.669 (1.050 OPS) with 16 homers and 45 RBI.

It looked like the 26-year-old catcher may be getting on one of those hot streaks back in mid-May when he clobbered the Marlins, White Sox and Braves pitching staffs to the tune of a .500 average, 1.780 OPS, 3 homers and 11 RBI in a week's worth of action.

But in the month since, Contreras has only 3 extra-base hits and no homers, driving in just 4 runs in 29 games (26 starts) while spending most of his time hitting behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

What's been the difference?

"I think it's honestly just the playing baseball part of the game," Contreras said. "You're gonna go through your ups and downs, but I definitely do feel like I've been putting in the work and about ready to take off to be able to help the team."

Contreras admitted he's been focused more on his work behind the plate this season, trying to manage the pitching staff, consume all the scouting reports and work on calling the game. He's still trying to figure out how to perfectly separate that area of his game with his at-bats.

"With my defense and calling games, that's one way that I'm able to help the team right now," Contreras said. "And as soon as my bat heats up, we're gonna be able to take off even more."

On the latest round of National League All-Star voting, Contreras was behind Posey among catchers. The Cubs backstop said he would be honored to go to Washington D.C. next month, but also understands he needs to show more of what he's capable of at the plate.

"If I go, I go," he said. "Honestly, it's not something that I'm really focusing on right now. ... I do think I've been pretty consistent in terms of my average and on-base percentage and helping create situations and keep the line moving, at least.

"But right now, I know my bat hasn't been super consistent so far. It would be a great opportunity and I'd thank the fans."

As a whole, the Cubs have been hitting fewer home runs this season compared to last year. Under new hitting coach Chili Davis, they're prioritizing contact and using the whole field over power and pulling the ball.

Contreras has a 19.3 percent strikeout rate — the lowest of his brief big-league career — while still holding a 9.6 percent walk rate, in line with his career mark (9.9 percent).

Thanks to improved defense, Contreras still boasts a 1.6 WAR (FanGraphs) despite the low power output to this point. Posey (1.7 WAR) is the only catcher in baseball more valuable to his team.

Just wait until his power shows up.

"He hasn't even taken off yet," Maddon said. "He's gonna really take off. Remember last year how hot he got in the second half? That's gonna happen again. You see the pickoffs, what he does behind the plate, how he controls the running game — he's a different cat.

"And he's gonna keep getting better. He's not even at that level of consistency that I think you're gonna get out of him. Great athlete, runs well, does a lot of things well, but it does not surprise me that he's [second in NL All-Star voting at catcher] with Posey."

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."